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The Chinese puzzle

Piracy problem rooted in past, prof sez

Culture and history may be the biggest obstacles to reducing China’s voracious appetite for making and selling pirated goods, an expert told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.

Pointing to centuries of Confucian ideology, which encourages mimicking the past over innovating in the present, and a long tradition of local authorities disregarding the dictates of national leaders, William Alford, director of East Asian studies at Harvard Law School, said any U.S. governmental response to piracy in China needs to address these two factors to be effective.

The Senate Subcommittee on Trade, Tourism & Economic Development hearing on piracy in China — among the largest producers and hawkers of bootleg movies and CDs in the world — initially focused on the Bush administration’s efforts to combat the problem.

Chris Israel, intellectual property rights czar at the Commerce Dept., said while Chinese authorities have made promises to crack down, filing a complaint against China with the World Trade Organization “is under active consideration.”

Ranking member Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) demanded to know why the administration was only considering such a move, particularly when Chinese prosecutions of pirates have decreased in recent years and the overall problem has increased.

The administration wants to give Chinese authorities reasonable time to make good on their promises, and consideration needs to be given to the possible impact a WTO case would have on the Chinese marketplace, Israel replied.

“Time is running out,” said subcommittee chairman Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), signaling growing bipartisan impatience on the issue. “We’re sick of it.”

Israel said “the real challenge” of reducing piracy in China lies not with Chinese laws, which are improving, but with enforcement of those laws, especially at local levels, where corruption tends to thrive.

“It’s tempting to view this as a matter of will, or lack of will,” Alford said, referring to critics who have repeatedly alleged that China simply doesn’t care to enforce IPR protection. But even before Mao’s revolution, local authorities often were corrupt as well as contemptuous of orders issued from Beijing, Alford said.

Also, Confucianism’s emphasis on “venerating the past and extolling its emulation” has encouraged a mass sensibility geared to reproducing rather than creating, he added. The very idea of intellectual property, as well as independent thought, which produces IP, are “still novel concepts in China.”