Chinese puzzles

China is the great enigma of our time, riddled with contradictions. It’s clearly an awakening geopolitical giant, and is potentially the only country which might one day challenge the US for global supremacy (a thought which keeps many right-wing US crazies awake at night). Almost every piece of electronics kit I buy (yea, even the sleekest stuff from Apple) has “Made in China” stamped on it somewhere. Microsoft has set up two labs in China — one to do R&D, the other to speed up the transition from R&D lab to product. Bill Gates spends a lot of time wooing the Chinese leadership. Yet the official position of the leadereship is that a special Chinese version of Linux is what will underpin all computing on its territory.

The Chinese (communist) government proclaims its desire to become a fully-fledged member of capitalist society and has even signed up to WIPO. And yet Mark Anderson (who keeps his eye on these things) says that no US company would dream of risking its intellectual property in China. Western companies are happy to have their hardware made there, but wouldn’t risk revealing their software there because of fears of being ripped off.

This has had an interesting side-effect. The Indian government, which hitherto has been one of the few administrations to take a relatively enlightened line on intellectual property at WIPO, seems to be hardening its stance and moving towards the ‘Strong IP’ side of the argument. One explanation for this could be that the Indians (who see China as their major rival) have spotted what’s going on and think that by having a Strong IP regime they can attract the Western investment that eschews China. This might be a shrewd move in the short-term, though in the longer term it may lock the Indians into the unfolding IP catastrophe.

In the course of seeking enlightenment on the Chinese enigma, I came on this elegant lecture, “Peering into the Future of China” by Brad DeLong of Berkeley. I wish more academics were as clear as this.