China's Bid For WIPO Fails, But Beijing's UN Plan is Still on Track

wipo-tang.jpg Daren Tang, CEO of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, who defeated China's candidate to win a leadership contest at the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), March 5, 2020.
Intellectual Property Office of Singapore

Singapore's candidate defeated China's on Thursday to win a leadership contest at the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as Beijing continues to jockey for control and influence at the U.N.

Daren Tang, 47, who is the current CEO of Singapore's intellectual property office, now looks set to take over from Australia's Francis Gurry as head of WIPO.

China's Wang Binyang -- who would have been the first woman to hold the post -- had been among five shortlisted candidates for the post, but Tang beat Wang by 55 committee votes to 28. His appointment must still be approved by the U.N. agency's general assembly, but this will likely be a formality.

The campaign for WIPO chief saw top U.S. officials speak out against China's candidate on the grounds that Beijing has stolen intellectual property in the past.

WIPO has a large income generated by corporate fees for its patent and trademarks registration service.

China's ambassador in Geneva Chen Xu denied that the result was a defeat for the Chinese government, which has been actively extending its overseas power and influence since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

"The whole process, I think, is a very strong indication of China’s readiness to make more contributions to the international community," Chen told reporters, adding: "We tried our best."

James Pooley, deputy Director General for Innovation and Technology Sector at WIPO, told RFA that China's massive infrastructure investment program in developing countries in recent years has made it far easier for Beijing to lobby to support its own interests in international bodies.

He said China has reproduced its lobbying and vote-seeking strategy across a number of international organizations, with considerable success.

China has now seen its nationals rise to the top job in four U.N. agencies: Qu Dongyu at the Food and Agriculture Association (FAO); Fang Liu at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); Zhao Houlin at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU); and Li Yong at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Fox guarding the henhouse

Last month, Peter Navarro, assistant to the U.S. president for trade and manufacturing policy, wrote that China is continually jockeying for control of the U.N.'s specialized agencies.

"China’s WIPO gambit is part of a broader strategy to gain control over the 15 specialized agencies of the U.N.," Navarro wrote in the Financial Times on Feb. 23.

"China already leads four of the U.N. specialized agencies while no other country leads more than one, and Chinese nationals hold the number two post at seven of them, including WIPO," he said.

He said it would have been a "terrible mistake" to give control of WIPO to a representative of China, given Beijing's record with intellectual property (IP).

"Chinese IP theft costs the American economy between U.S.$225 billion and U.S.$600 billion annually," Navarro wrote.

Richard Gowan, who represents the International Crisis Group at the United Nations, said China's control of the FAO last year had come as a nasty shock to Washington, which had then lobbied hard against Wang Binying during the WIPO selection process.

Requests for comment to the Chinese embassy in the U.S. and the foreign ministry in Beijing had met with no response at the time of publication.

But Chinese officials have hit out in the past at the U.S.' own lobbying activities as "arrogant suppression of China for narrow political purposes."

Pooley said China had proposed opening a WIPO office in Shanghai, raising concerns about the security of top secret patent documents under the International Patent System, which receives more than 250,000 patent applications a year.

He said the applications contained some of the most valuable secrets in the world, and that global trust in China's ability to safeguard intellectual property is too low for it to lead WIPO. The plan for the Shanghai office was later shelved.

'Track record of molding the U.N. agenda'

A senior White House official told RFA that Beijing's campaign to take control of WIPO is part of its bid to "reshape the international system to accommodate its political and economic interests."

"Chinese Communist Party officials in these leadership roles are not independent and have a proven track record of molding the U.N. agenda to serve [Beijing's] interests," the official said.

"In service of this strategy, [China] has consistently sought to trade financial incentives for votes, offering bribes and cancelling debt for countries that support them."

China last year forgave Cameroon’s debt the month before the country withdrew its candidate to head the FAO, and threatened to cut off key exports from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay if those countries did not back Qu, who now heads the body, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

The paper said China is the sole contributor to the U.N. Peace and Development Trust Fund, which gives Chinese officials four of the five steering committee seats. The Fund advises the U.N. secretary general on which projects to fund, allowing Beijing to lobby for its Belt and Road international infrastructure investment program, the paper said.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Simon Lau said China has also begun to implement its international influence strategy at the U.N. Human Rights Committee and -- notably given the current COVID-19 epidemic -- at the World Health Organization (WHO).

"Trump himself has criticized the U.N. Human Rights Committee for ... allowing the Chinese Communist Party and Russia to control its response to human rights violations," Lau told RFA. "These aren't isolated incidents: they are state policy."

"A few years ago, China began to promote the idea of a Chinese solution to international disputes ... and refers to the hegemony of the U.S., while they claim to be all about peaceful negotiation," he said.

He said Beijing's influence has been quite audible in the response of the WHO to China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

"Every time the Director General of the WHO comes out to say something about the current global spread of the epidemic, he has to praise Xi Jinping," Lau said.

"If we are already seeing this happening at the WHO, then perhaps we will also see praise for China's intellectual property protections ... around the forthcoming Sino-U.S. intellectual property negotiations?"

Reported by Jane Tang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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