Tag Archives: intellectual property

Corpocracy & the Trade War


Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

Lost in all of the furor over the trade war with China is a critical social and business distinction between the two countries. The US operates on a system that presumes the supremacy of the individual. China, on the other hand, operates on a system that presumes the supremacy of geography and ethnicity.

The best example of the difference is the way in which the two countries dole out citizenship to newborns. In the US, if you have a baby on US soil, whether or not the parents are US citizens, or even here legally, the baby has the rights to US citizenship. While that may seem to suggest geography trumps lineage, it reflects the supremacy of the individual’s rights; in this case the baby’s.

In China, on the other hand, it is the ethnicity of the mother that drives the baby’s rights. A baby born in Beijing to a foreign mother has no rights to Chinese citizenship. A baby born to a Chinese mother in Houston, on the other hand, does have rights to Chinese citizenship.

To understand the business implications you must appreciate that under US law, a corporation is a person. They hold all of the rights, save voting, of every US citizen. As a result, they have the right to free speech and they can own property, like intellectual property, in the same way an individual can.

There are many implications of this. The first is the fact that the US taxes the corporation, not its location. It’s far more complicated than I want to get into here, but suffice it to say that the US is one of only a handful of countries that has historically taxed the worldwide income of its corporations. Those corporations could defer that tax, however, which is why so many companies were holding large amounts of cash overseas. The 2017 Tax Reform Act provided for a one-time exclusion in order to encourage companies to bring that cash to the US, and it introduced a hybrid territorial tax system, but the basic idea of treating the corporation as a person remains intact. (They are distinguished from individuals in terms of the tax rates they pay, however.)

China, on the other hand, does not treat its corporations as individuals and regulates them, instead, based on their geography. To the extent that a corporation is doing business in China, be it a foreign company or a domestic one, it will fall under Chinese regulations.

The best example is the way China treats the Internet. Foreign technology companies, including the Silicon Valley tech giants, are not allowed to just reach into the market of Chinese Internet users without being subject to Chinese Internet regulations. And there are regulations in place to require that foreign companies operating in China keep their local data on local servers (in the interest of national security) rather than on servers at the company headquarters in Chicago or Palo Alto.

The basic perspective is that China belongs to the Chinese people. If you, as a foreign company, want to make money off of the Chinese people, that comes with certain obligations. And one of those obligations is to pay taxes that benefit the people you are making money from.

American multi-nationals often charge their foreign subsidiaries enormous fees for what is characterized as corporate support from the home office. This can take many forms—from accounting to engineering—but is generally based on the perspective of the US corporate parent that “I own you” and I can, therefore, do what I want with the money you make in China. “Not so fast,” say the Chinese, however. Before we will allow the Chinese company to pay those fees we want to make sure that those services are really provided and were, in fact, truly necessary. The reality is that many of those fees are for the provision of services that could easily be provided within China at much, much lower rates. (Which would mean more Chinese taxes to benefit the Chinese people.)

The bigger impact of this distinction has to do with all of the fuss you are hearing from President Trump and others about intellectual property. If an American company develops new technology at a research center in China, it believes that it owns that technology. And that’s a perfectly logical position for a corporation to take if you believe that corporations are people and that the US parent company “owns” the Chinese subsidiary.


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That’s not so logical, however, if you have a more collectivist perspective. If new ideas are created by Chinese nationals working in China, in the collectivist view, those ideas should benefit the Chinese people. After all, those inventors benefit from their rights as members of the Chinese community. They go to Chinese-funded schools, drive on Chinese roads, enjoy the fruits of Chinese farmers, and the benefits of community funded police and fire protection.

Which is why there is so much fuss over the sharing of technology between US multi-nationals and their Chinese joint venture partners. (In certain strategic industries that the Chinese consider critical to the interests of the Chinese people, foreign companies must have a minority Chinese partner for their Chinese business.) The word “forced”, however, which Trump is tweeting regularly, is, in my experience, a gross exaggeration. It is nonetheless true that China does not want foreign companies manufacturing there to install antiquated production technology for purposes of skimming profits off of the Chinese economy. And it is true that this technology will eventually leak out, much as it did here in the US back when we were a manufacturing country.

For GM, for example, China is now its single biggest market, and it makes a lot of money there. And it has a minority Chinese joint venture partner. And while I know nothing privileged about the inner workings of GM, I’m sure that they deploy their latest production technology there. Otherwise, they could not compete, the Chinese government would not have allowed China to become GM’s largest market, and after all, it is their largest market. And I’m equally sure GM is concerned about the rising Chinese automakers having access to their technology.

But that is the same concern they have here in Detroit. All of the Big Three automakers use essentially the same supplier base, frequently trade employees, and back engineer each other’s products extensively. Can you tell the difference between a Ford and a Chevrolet at first glance? Why should it be any different for a Chinese automaker? If anyone has a legitimate beef about design and technology leakage it’s probably the Germans—and the culprit is the US, not China.


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As a related aside, the Chinese brand of collectivist thinking tends to infuriate US companies who are accustomed to assuming all of the rights of citizenship. They don’t like being told what to do or how to think. And that arrogance, in turn, has not ingratiated the US corporate community to Beijing. And it is that conceptual friction that is, in the end, contributing greatly to a lot of the US corporate angst toward China that Trump is currently tweeting on behalf of.

Make no mistake, however; the current perspective of US multi-national corporations is NOT “the American way.” This is a very recent development in the US, coinciding with the ongoing incorporation of America. At the time of the Founding Fathers, there were no multi-national corporations and corporations did not enjoy the rights of corporate personhood. Corporations were licensed for very specific purposes, such as building a canal, for a very specific and limited period of time.

As recently as 1900 the average factory in the US employed fewer than ten people, the economy was very localized, and the role of corporations in American life was largely limited to providing employment and supporting the local community. It is only in the latter half of the 20th Century that US corporations were able to achieve the scale and the power they have today. (And from a corporate insider let me assure you that US corporate power today is far greater than you fear.)

The US government, to be fair, resisted the incorporation of America until the rise of the conservative movement in the 1980s. They did it largely through antitrust regulation that promoted healthy competition and protected American consumers and citizens from the dangers of corporate monopolies and oligopolies.

The corporations, aided greatly by the banks and Wall Street, however,  ultimately won, and it wasn’t a fair fight. The politicians, after all, have no power if they can’t get elected, and in order to do that they need money. And since the courts ultimately eliminated any restriction on corporate involvement in politics, it’s no surprise that the deepest pockets ultimately took control of the American political process.

As a result, the US is no longer a democracy; it is a “corpocracy.” Conceptually, the American corporation now plays the same role that the church did in Medieval Europe. The kings may wear the crowns, but it is the corporate “popes” that are really calling the shots.

The incorporation accelerated greatly during the dot-com 90s when young entrepreneurs were preaching disruption and libertarianism. It is ironic, indeed, that this “common man” perspective has now produced among the biggest and most powerful corporations the world has ever known. And they pulled it off, quite impressively, while the anti-trust regulators stood by and watched. (Why would they complain, the politicians were benefiting as much as the entrepreneurs.)

Although Trump is a willing water carrier for American corporate interests, the American corpocracy is ultimately unsustainable. It will implode and the Trump revolution, ironically, is ample evidence that the implosion is already underway. (One of the many contradictions of the Trump era and the man himself.)

Perhaps the ultimate twist of history, however, is that Trump would never have been elected, and the trade war with China would never have been necessary, if the US had, just a few decades ago, adopted the collectivist perspective the Chinese are now applying. We sold our souls; we shouldn’t expect others to do the same.

photo credit above: iStock.com/400tmax

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CES Update: Google Expands in China

photo credit: iStock.com/tomch


Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

On January 11, 2018, I posted “Consumer Electronics Show”, in which I gave some dimension to China’s importance to American tech and offered my assessment that China, for the reasons stated in the post, would be a major player in the future global tech industry. And, yes, this prognosis was very different from the one I provided in 2015, when I wrote Understanding China: There is Reason for the Difference. And, of course, I provided the reason for the change of heart.

Five days after I released that post, Google announced it was opening an office in Shenzhen, China, the center of the hardware manufacturing universe, just across the river from Hong Kong. And a few days after that Google announced a broad patent sharing agreement with Chinese tech giant Tencent, the $500 billion parent of China’s top social media and payment app, WeChat.

This, of course, all comes on the heels of Google’s previous announcement of a new AI research center in Beijing, where the software side of China’s tech business is growing rapidly, in part due to the presence of many of China’s top universities there. And, of course, the symbolism of Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai speaking at a conference in China, back in December, hosted by the Cyberspace Administration of China, which overseas Internet censorship in China, where Google’s search engine, as I write this, remains blocked.

In addition to providing some support for my prognosis, these announcements have triggered some additional thoughts that only reinforce my conviction in that previous prediction.

It is difficult for Westerners, and Americans in particular, to appreciate the role of the Chinese government in the economy. If your company does not maintain good relations with the government, you simply won’t succeed there. And it’s not enough to simply do what they ask you to do. If you want to succeed, you must be pro-active, and you must convince the government that you are a good partner. That means you have empathy for the job it faces and you share its goals for model corporate citizenship.

As my faithful readers know by now, I believe the universe is ultimately defined by dualities. For every pro there is a con, for every cloud there is a silver lining, for every yin there is a yang. Reality, as a result, is not so much defined by the dimensions of the two sides of that duality as it is by the degree to which equilibrium is established between them.

American business people look at the role of the government in the Chinese economy and immediately think oppressive regulation, bureaucracy, long delays, and, of course, bribery. And, of course, all of these things can exist. That is not to say, however, that they must exist, and, in fact, my nine-year experience there convinced me that while these concerns are realistic, they do not define the current reality. I found the government facilitated my business more than it hindered it and not once did my company pay a bribe, nor was one ever solicited.

And, yes, I am experienced enough to know that a government official looking for a little grease is not going to ask me, a foreigner, directly. If an official is corrupt it doesn’t mean he or she is stupid. Which is why every quarter I personally reviewed each and every cash disbursement made by my company, from the payment of invoices to the reimbursement of travel expenses, to the replenishment of the petty cash fund. If you are looking for fraud, that’s where you will find it. And I found none.

In the case of Google and the tech industry you have to look at the positive side of the government duality issue. In the fast moving tech industry, a government alliance is not a strategy for risk avoidance; it’s a strategy for gaining competitive advantage in the global tech industry.

That is because, unlike the US, China, like many developed countries, including Germany, has a very well defined national industrial strategy. The policy defines those industries where it sees the most positive growth potential, in fitting with the country’s social and political agendas, of course, which serves as a blueprint for both corporate leaders and government regulators. It’s totally transparent and insures that everyone is singing from the same song sheet.

The US, by contrast, leaves its national industrial policy up to the “free markets.” The US, in other words, lets the corporations decide, based on the theory that they will be guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand of profits to do what, in the end, is in the best interest of the country and its citizens.

Like a lot of our political and economic theory today, unfortunately, that’s not the way things really work. The US has an industrial policy; it’s just not transparent. It is defined by politicans, corporate lobbyists, and special interests behind closed doors. This is one of the main reasons that the rich continue to get richer in the US. They are the only ones with access to real political power because they are the ones with the money that politicians need to remain in power. We don’t call it bribery, so that we can claim the moral high ground, but it is bribery of the worst kind—both distortive and clandestine. (I was a CEO and board member in the US as well as China, so this is not conjecture.)

Google has apparently seen the light. (Microsoft saw the light years ago but it learned some very hard lessons before it did.) They recognize that China is the world’s second largest economy, with 1.4 billion citizens who are the earliest of early-adopters, and which, if you have good government relations, is going to be the fastest moving playing field on the planet. As I noted last time this is because, if you make the national priority list, which tech sits atop of, your regulatory and legal problems will largely disappear. The government will clear the runway in the way that only a government can. In the meantime, the young bucks of Silicon Valley will be trudging through the quagmire of preventing “fake news” and fighting it out in court over who owns what intellectual property rights.

When it comes to China, Americans have been trained to see the glass, particularly when the government is involved, as half full. In reality, the opposite is true. A partnership with the Chinese government will not only set up your company to succeed in China, it will set you up to dominate the global market for tech or any other favored industry.

The world has changed. It is smaller and more crowded. But more importantly, technology has been a game-changer. And one of the things it has changed most dramatically is the integration and complexity of the political, economic, and social systems we use to govern the country. We can no longer think of them in discrete, independent terms.

Environmental scientists used to think of our environment as a collection of discrete ecosystems. We had a prairie here, a polar ice cap there, and a rain forest a long way away. They now recognize, however, that these are not discrete. They are all part of a single global ecosystem that is intricately interconnected. Yes, climate change can lead to huge snowstorms and record-breaking cold temperatures along the US eastern coastline. That doesn’t mean the climate isn’t changing. It just means that the global environment is more inter-connected than we ever imagined.

Other areas of science have discovered the same thing. The various branches of hard and soft science (e.g., biology and economics) were once studied and researched as discrete subjects. Today, however, the real science is being done in areas like evolutionary biology and behavioral economics. The knowledge of how the world works is found not within the functionally discrete pockets of science, but in the overlaps that pull them all together into one inter-connected reality.

I’ve actually written a book about it. It’s called We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous American and it will soon be available on Amazon in print and Kindle versions. It is not a book about China. It is a book about how to leverage our individual liberties and opportunities into a new model of political economy that emphasizes our collective advancement as a country and a just, inclusive society.

Here’s the text from the back cover:

The phrase “We the people” is the start of one of the most famous documents in American history, yet few have paused to consider what it truly means. In his new political guide, Gary Moreau ponders this expression and the change it could represent for our society. America has long perpetuated an idea of rugged individuality and exceptionalism. The “we” in society has been replaced with “me.”

Moreau explains why this notion is simply untenable for America. America has gone through some growing pains in the past two hundred years, and Moreau believes that society’s refusal to cast off some of its original, ineffective methods is a pressing issue. Instead, they should be replaced with a model focused on providing for the collective good.

The world is changing, and for America to continue to be the land of happiness and prosperity, it needs to change with it.

The release date is February 15, 2018, but that is subject to change as the design process wraps up. In the meantime I am offering 25 free copies of the book in either paperback or Kindle formats. Just send your name and address to gary@gmoreau.com with the subject line “Free Book” and I’ll send it out as soon as it is available. First come, first served. For print versions, US addresses only, please, and for the Kindle version you must have a US e-mail address and access to Amazon US. (I don’t need your physical address if you are requesting a free Kindle copy, and I promise not to sell any of your contact info or use it for any other purpose.)

 

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