Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

US must handle IPR theft cases objectively

By Shen Dingli (China Daily) Updated: 2015-05-26 07:46

On landing at Los Angeles airport on May 15, Zhang Hao, a professor at Tianjin University, was arrested by US police for suspected economic espionage. Five of his colleagues and some of his students, believed to be in China now, too have been indicted by the US for "stealing sensitive American technology" for smartphones and potential military applications.

Zhang and some of the other accused studied and worked in the US for a few years, during which they might have developed some acoustic technologies for mobile phones for their companies. They returned to China in 2009 and continued working in the same field - research and development in and manufacturing of semiconductor chips - which made them vulnerable to legal issues.

The possible problems they faced while doing so included: Would the technologies they developed in the US be the properties of their previous employers? Did they bring to China other technologies that were solely owned by the US entities? If yes, did they settle with the US entities how to use them without legal complications? Would the new technologies they developed after returning to China be subject to legal limitations which they might still be under because of their R&D work in the US?

Given the increasing number of Chinese returning home from abroad, such legal issues are bound to be on the rise. Such problems have to be properly tackled by China and the US to protect each other's legitimate intellectual property rights (IPRs). And Zhang's case should be a warning to people with a similar background - having studied and worked in the US before returning to China - to be cautious about using American technology for free.

But this doesn't justify the way Zhang and his colleagues have been treated by the Barack Obama administration. Faced with increasing number of cases involving US trade secrets, Washington should first establish bilateral collaboration with other countries to crack down on illegal use of technologies developed in the US, or visa versa. Short of this, it is highly improper to invite some "suspects" to the US to attend special programs and detain or arrest them for violation of IPRs.

China and the US both are committed to protecting each other's indigenous technological innovations through unilateral as well as bilateral cooperation. They know that industrial espionage can yield certain short-term gains, but in the long run it poses a huge risk. That is why Beijing and Washington both are opposed to theft of technologies and determined to protect their respective trade secrets.

Such a stance could become more effective if, for example, the US approaches China with its concerns over economic theft, and both sides could launch joint investigation. China should do the same - approach the US - in such cases, especially because it is becoming increasingly vulnerable to IPR theft owing to the fast-paced development of its R&D sector.

Zhang and his lawyer have to defend his case in a US court to prove that he carried out research into and manufactured the products in Tianjin for his own company and/or university, which had nothing to do with the government in order to counter the 32-count charge according to the 1996 Economic Espionage Act. China will provide adequate legal support to protect the legitimate interests of its citizens and convey to the US that its approach to bring suspects to book is improper.

The US is "alarmed" at the rising incidences of possible cyber-based or insider-based theft of IPRs. The indictment of five Chinese military personnel last year and the recent arrest of Zhang indicate the US has become desperate.

While former National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden's revelation of the US' massive illegal surveillance program against China and other countries is yet to be resolved, Washington's latest high-handed attitude toward disputes over IPRs with Chinese nationals will not help the development of bilateral ties. The US' approach will neither help reactivate the suspended bilateral working group on cybersecurity nor boost bilateral academic interaction between the two sides.

The author is a professor at and associate dean of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai.

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