A dirty US fight to control WIPO

China loses to Singapore in American smear campaign but the US will have to contend with an IP powerhouse

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Monday 08 June 2020
China loses to Singapore in American smear campaign in controlling WIPO. Photo: iStock

Early in March 2020, the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO as it is known, said it had nominated Daren Tang Heng Shim as its new director-general (DG) to take over from Francis Gurry whose term ends in September.

The announcement followed several rounds of voting, which eliminated eight of the 10 aspirants, leaving Tang of Singapore and Wang Binyang of China to fight it out. In any case, the contest to gain control of the United Nations agency that oversees the international property (IP) system globally was only between these two. 

Tang, who heads the IP office of the Singapore government, had a formidable opponent in Wang, a deputy DG at WIPO and a well regarded professional with nearly three decades at the Geneva-based organisation.

But she was undercut by a fierce United States campaign against China which came in the wake of the trade war that Donald Trump had launched against the Xi Jinpeng regime, accusing it of IP theft. A trade pact signed in January to end the row does not appear to have changed anything. 

Tang, backed by the US and its allies, won after a particularly vicious campaign that was led by top aides to Trump and roped in senators and a host of others. In the weeks preceding the final round, Peter Navarro, assistant to the US president on trade and manufacturing policy, wrote in Financial Times of London that handing the reins of WIPO to the Chinese would be “a terrible mistake”.

A commentator from an ultra-right think tank went further, saying it would be akin to “giving the world’s largest hen house to the world’s largest fox”. It was a comment as distasteful as it was inappropriate; WIPO is not a repository of patent secrets but only promotes the protection of IP. 

The hen house imagery which became popular with America’s China-bashers doesn’t hold. The reality is that China has established itself as an IP powerhouse in the last couple of years, overtaking the western nations and Japan in its scientific and technical prowess.

This has unsettled the US which has been toppled from its decades-long top position. With the China emerging as the world’s most prolific filer of patents — according to WIPO it accounted for nearly half of the 3.3 million global patents in 2018 — and leading in next generation technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence, the country has become as tough in enforcing and protecting IP rights as its worst critics. 

In fact, current WIPO chief Gurry, an Australian, had said in 2018 that China’s emergence would upset the US because the rise of a new competitor always upsets from the existing order. To quote from an interview, Gurry had stated: “China is here as a major technological power. Now we have a new competitor, and the game changes.”

But in terms of global power politics, the game did not change all that much. Wang got only 28 votes from WIPO’s 83-member coordination committee which elects the DG. China says it’s because the US put pressure on smaller countries who had been threatened with loss of World Bank and IMF loans. That may be true. But it’s also true that China’s innovation supremacy frightens many nations. 

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