GENEVA – A Chinese ambassador on Wednesday ripped into the U.S. for an “attack” on China's candidate to head a United Nations agency that monitors and tracks intellectual property like patents, trademarks and industrial designs — a lucrative and crucial part of the growing digital age.
The showdown over the leadership of the World Intellectual Property Organization amounts to the latest face-off between the United States and China.
The comments by Chen Xu, China's ambassador in Geneva, laid bare rising tensions over an alleged U.S. campaign to prevent veteran WIPO official Weng Binyang from becoming director-general of the money-making agency that counts 192 member states.
"The United States is turning this election into a political game. The United States has no candidate of its own, yet it tries every means to block Ms. Weng Binyang and even takes this venture at its top diplomatic agenda," Chen told reporters at a news conference on the issue at the U.N.'s Geneva compound.
“It is sad that the United States has gone so far as to warn some of the medium and small countries not to vote for China, or they will face consequences such as weakened relations with the United States or losing the World Bank and IMF loans,” Chen added.
“The United States attack on China's candidature, China's contribution, in the areas of IPR is not only unfair, it's irrational,” he said, referring to intellectual property rights.
A WIPO “coordination committee” is set to select its nominee for director-general at a closed-door vote March 4-5, before the agency's general assembly makes the final decision in May. The assembly has never rejected a coordination committee nominee since WIPO was created in 1967.
Weng is one of six remaining candidates out of 10 who originally announced plans to replace Director-General Francis Gurry of Australia. Candidates from Colombia, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Peru and Singapore are also in the race.
The United States and other Western allies have long expressed concerns about China’s approach to intellectual property, with Trump administration officials accusing Beijing of outright theft of Western know-how. The spat comes as China has been flexing its intellectual muscle in recent years. By WIPO's own count late last year, China alone accounted for nearly half of all patent filings worldwide.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said two weeks ago that the United States was “tracking” the WIPO election “very, very closely.”
“We are going to make sure that whoever runs that organization understands the importance of enforcing intellectual property rights across nations and across boundaries,” he said on Feb. 13.
"You should know that we’re engaged in lots of conversations to make sure that whoever is ultimately selected has respect for property rights and the rule of law in the context of intellectual property rights,” he said.
Trump's assistant for trade and manufacturing policy at the White House, Peter Navarro, on Sunday went even further in a column in the Financial Times newspaper, insisting that international intellectual property rules "underpin the innovation economy.”
“The U.S. believes that giving control of WIPO to a representative of China would be a terrible mistake,” Navarro wrote. “China is responsible for 85% of counterfeits seized by US border officials; and Chinese IP theft costs the American economy between $225-$600 billion annually.”
He alleged a Chinese “gambit to gain control over the 15 specialized agencies of the U.N." He noted that China already has leadership of four of those, while no other country leads more than one.
The Chinese ambassador dismissed that charge: "It's not our strategy to intentionally to seek the dominance in terms of numbers. It's a natural process."
He also blasted the U.S. for having “turned their back” on multilateral cooperation, citing Trump administration withdrawals from international organizations like the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, and the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council.