The extra emphasis on China in the media culminates this week with the US visit by President Hu Jintao. Much has been written about the visit and much posturing has taken place to set a “proper” tone. It’s hard not to comment on some of what has been said before hitting on the important topics of Innovation and Climate Change.
Economy. Let’s start with the currency. I don’t quite get all the noise about China needing to increase the value of the Yuan relative to the dollar. Secretary Geithner says it will help them control their inflation and will be “fairer,” whatever that means. The prices of Chinese goods are already going up which is a result of wages rising and productivity, particularly in low value goods, not offsetting labor costs. A rise in the value of the Yuan would increase prices more and would also increase the buying power of the poorer segments of the Chinese population while doing just the opposite for that segment in the developed world. It would have the effect of creating jobs outside of China—not in the US, but in Mexico, Vietnam and other countries that will have a labor cost advantage relative to China. The rate of inflation would likely fall in China, but, of course, it would rise in the developed world. The short-term effect on the relative trade balance would be negative for the US, as it would take time for US corporations to shift purchasing to other countries. Plus, commodity prices, particularly oil, would likely rise in dollar terms, increasing our trade deficit in energy. Anyone who really expects that such an action would create jobs or a significant enough cost advantage to stimulate US exports or US buying of US goods vs. creating exports for other low cost countries isn’t looking at what China exports and imports vs. what the US makes. Odds are the media and our wonderful congress will spend more time on the currency issues than anything else. I think President Hu is here to go shopping. By that I mean putting China in a position to buy US assets that will be of value to its growth plans, primarily access to technologies that can allow it to meet its objectives of being a leader in innovation over the next several decades. The tradeoff will likely be further access to Chinese companies and markets by the US. I reach this conclusion from a thorough read of China’s Patent Policy put forth this past fall.
Innovation. China’s National Patent Development Strategy (2011-2020) is a scary read. China sets very high targets for patent filings over the next 5 years, dwarfing filings by the US and Japan (which already exceeds the US in patents in force). It establishes a budget for Patent services that could reach US$16 Billion annually at current exchange rates. It proposes to have ten model cities focused on utilizing the patent system and the incentives to create a vigorous intellectual property market. It will seek to acquire intellectual property from others. A couple of direct quotes from the Strategy are worth noting: “A large number of core patents will be acquired in some key fields of emerging industries and some key technological fields in traditional industries. …Encourage enterprises to acquire patent rights through innovation on the basis of digesting and absorbing imported patented technology. …Support and foster exports of patented technologies and increase the proportion of exported patent-intensive commodities and strengthen guidance on patent policies for enterprises in the process of overseas mergers and acquisitions.” Implied in the budgets for patent services is a vigorous enforcement of patent rights. Once China has intellectual property rights (IPR) to defend, it will likely be one of the more aggressive enforcers of those rights. The number of patents in force today with their origin in the US and Japan are each almost 20 times those of China. When those numbers get closer to parity it may very well be the US that finds itself on the defensive for not respecting IPR. This was last the case in the early days of the Industrial Revolution when the US was the upstart and more intellectual property resided in Europe, primarily the UK.
Climate Change. China’s plans for Patent Development raise significant issues about where intellectual capital will ultimately reside. When it comes to capitalizing on two significant areas of expected (or should we say required) technological innovation and value over the next decades, China is explicit as to their importance: “…Balance the relationship between the patent policies and some major public policies such as public health and climate change.” (My emphasis) Others can hold forth on the health front. In the patent document and others, China continues to highlight Climate Change as a focus of its policies and its technological efforts. It is clear that China sees the requirement to respond to this threat as political as well as societal. We will ultimately be a buyer of what China and others produce unless we also look at what policies we can put in place to be competitive. At the moment we have the intellectual leadership existing in a variety of our institutions. Shame on us if we let that leadership slip away.