Anyone who's visited a backstreet market in China's capital has probably been accosted by someone selling inexpensive music CDs, movie DVDs, or computer software. The discs themselves are made in China. Cheap labor sees to that.
But the information on the discs - the new ideas and creativity - mostly come from the US, Japan, or Europe. Buy one and you're an accomplice to theft on a global scale.
Intellectual property rights are about as honored in China as human rights are. One difference is that Western and Japanese companies lose an estimated $80 billion a year because of China's infringement on patents and copyrights through piracy and counterfeiting.
Last week, Don Evans made his fourth and final trip to China as the US secretary of commerce, pleading with China's leaders to do more to crack down on this theft. The economic loss to the US in terms of vanished jobs and market share is "straining our trading relationship," he said. "Let's start putting people in jail," he boldly suggested.
Despite some action by Beijing, such as stricter antipiracy laws, the problem only worsens as China's economy rapidly expands. One example is a new minicar called QQ, built by the Chinese company Chery. It is a near clone of the Chevrolet Spark, designed and built by General Motors' South Korean partner Daewoo. GM Daewoo has filed suit.
This theft of ideas provides a subsidy to China's economy, allowing it to catch up to the West in dishonest ways that will only discourage originality among its own scientists, movie producers, software developers, and others. A good example: The online company Beijing Scholar Digital Technology was fined $3,650 last week for pirating books by a noted Chinese writer. The books - now get this - were about copyright piracy.
Over the past 25 years, China's Communist Party has learned that the source of wealth isn't really manual labor - as Marx claimed and which Mao and Lenin blindly accepted - but ideas, or rather the risks taken by creative thinkers and their financiers to invest in them. Some call that capitalism. Lately, President Bush has called it "an ownership society," in which people can better channel and control their creative work and risk-taking investments, and the wealth they create.
The US needs to wake up to China's threat to the core strength of the American economy - the constant wellspring of innovation in industry, high finance, software, movies, and other fields. Pirates can steal those ideas with a click of a mouse, and creativity can slowly disappear if creators aren't justly compensated.