BEIJING — JUST a day after China called for a nationwide boycott of pirated goods to salve American anger over copyright theft, the software sellers on Beijing's so-called Electronics Street were doing brisk business.
The United States estimates that more than 90 percent of the software sold at this northwest Beijing computer hub and other centers in China is illicit. Add in illegal copies of compact discs like the Rolling Stones' ``Voodoo Lounge'' and Eric Clapton's ``Unplugged,'' and pirated videos such as ``The Lion King,'' and US manufacturers lose $1 billion in royalties yearly, US trade officials say.
On Thursday, China's software pirates, the bane of US trade negotiators pushing for tougher enforcement of Chinese copyright law, were still operating openly and offering to illegally copy WordPerfect, Windows, and other $200 programs for as little as $12 each.
But some wariness had crept in as police scrutiny increased. ``Now, this is quite dangerous. This is illegal, and we won't do this now,'' says Chen Yu, an engineer with Beijing Superior Technology Development Company.
``Now, nobody dares to sell pirated software openly,'' another vendor says. ``Now, is a special time, and you have to go underground to get it.''
While vehemently defending its record for copyright protection, Beijing is intensifying its public relations blitz to soften a tough US stand against widespread piracy and avert a looming trade confrontation with Washington.
Last weekend, US and Chinese officials traded retaliatory threats and then backed off for a 30-day negotiation period before sanctions would take effect after Feb. 4. Talks, broken off when US negotiators walked out in mid-December, are expected to resume this month.
On Thursday, Beijing trade officials stepped up their two-pronged campaign by urging Chinese companies accused of unfairly selling goods at below-cost prices to cooperate in resolving their cases. But they also suggested that anti-dumping laws were being used as a pretext to exclude Chinese exports from overseas markets.
Also this week, authorities launched a new series of raids against three porcelain plants using stolen technology, closed a Beijing bookstore stocked with thousands of pirated copies of Hong Kong-published books, established a 24-hour hotline in Shanghai for reports on pirated goods, and pledged to tighten and update China's three-year-old copyright law.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation said that 37 anti-dumping cases involving clothing, machinery, electrical and chemical products, and food were filed against Chinese firms in 1994, 15 of them in the US, followed by nine in Europe and five in Mexico.
Urging China's companies to compete by raising quality rather than slashing prices, the trade ministry also charged that ``many countries, disregarding the facts, have taken unjust measures when filing anti-dumping suits against Chinese products,'' according to a report in the official New China News Agency.
Although China and the US have repeatedly clashed on trade issues and resolved their disputes through last-minute deals, the confrontation over intellectual-property protection could prove the most difficult and dangerous, Western analysts say. With stakes high on both sides, a trade war could spill over and affect Hong Kong and other intertwined economies.
Charging that China's copyright enforcement lacks substance and political commitment, the US is demanding that China shut down 29 counterfeit compact-disc plants, some state-owned and some believed to have connections to the military. American negotiators estimate the illicit factories are producing more than 75 million pirated compact discs yearly, most for export.
``These gestures lack the substance needed to convince the US that China is serious about protecting intellectual property rights,'' a Western diplomat observed.
Accusing the US of making unreasonable demands and ignoring China's progress on copyright protection, Beijing officials insist enforcement is often stymied by interference from provincial and municipal officials protecting private factories. Police have already launched a number of crackdowns, seizing bootleg copies of Lux soap bars, Rolex watches, and even Cherokee-model Jeeps in the process.
The US demands ``are far beyond the range of intellectual property rights'' and violate ``the basic principles of guarding international relations,'' legal expert Xu Jie was quoted as saying by the New China News Agency.
For many Chinese, the dispute is also seen in terms of the rich West overcharging for its technology to keep it out of the hands of developing countries.
In Beijing's computer market, Li Liang says he can get illicit copies of all kinds of software and has no qualms about pirating it ``since that's the only way many people in China can afford it.
``The situation is tight now,'' he says, referring to the government's apparent crackdown. ``But it will ease, and we'll soon be back to normal.''