He did not frame it this way, but President Trump’s decision on Thursday to penalize China for stealing American intellectual property serves a purpose beyond merely helping the US economy.
It also could nudge China to better honor a cornerstone idea of the world trading system.
The idea is that individuals who invent a widget or create a great work serve a grand purpose for all by bringing forth a useful discovery. To nurture such progress, their work deserves temporary legal protections from theft.
That concept often gets lost in the hard-knuckle nationalism of today’s trade battles, especially when countries like China set forth big goals to dominate specific industries by almost any means. Chinese leader Xi Jinping even speaks of “foreign things for China’s use.” And in Mr. Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on Chinese goods and limit China’s investments in US technologies, he narrowly tries to protect America’s competitive edge in science and technology.
But his actions have the additional effect of affirming a global system that encourages individuals to flourish by rewarding their hard work and creativity through patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Original thought, expressed in individual achievements in science and technology, reveals infinite possibilities for humanity. To honor creative thinking is to nurture it.
Many in China may actually welcome this US move. In recent years, Chinese companies have won intellectual property cases against their competitors in court. And Mr. Xi himself has warned Chinese artists not to plagiarize the works of others.
The new legal protections in China have helped create a burst of innovation in industries. China is now the second biggest source of international patent applications behind the United States. It could become the biggest within three years, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
The US economy loses an estimated $225 billion to $600 billion annually to theft of its trade secrets. Most of that loss comes from China through cybertheft and forced transfers of technology. Correcting that imbalance will definitely help the US. But most of all it will restore the integrity of global trading rules that rely on the idea that all humanity benefits when individuals can safely earn perks from their discoveries.