Mr. Navarro, what exactly is 'forced technology transfer' please?
Editor's note: Dr. John Gong is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and a professor at the University of International Business and Economics of China. The article reflects the author’s opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.
In 2011, Peter Navarro published a book entitled "Death by China," along with a documentary with the same name. In it, Navarro makes some pretty serious accusations about China.
Seven years later, Navarro became one of US President Donald Trump’s top trade advisers, playing music to his ears, again accusing China of acquiring US technology through "forced technology transfer."
But I am wondering how a technology transfer can be forced in a society of rule of law.
What do you mean by "forced," and by whom? Is someone from the government holding a gun to the head of a company executive, or is he held in some secret hotel room until he "transfers" technology?
Well, technology is complicated. It is not just something you can write on a piece of paper or draw an illustrative graph of. Technology is about a process, craftsmanship, and engineering experiences and knowledge accumulated over time. It is about all of these things combined.
But history tells us that over time, technology does get transferred regardless of whether by force or not. It is like trying to keep a secret forever, if there is such a thing as a "forever secret."
You may think of Coca-Cola, the iconic American symbol. There is no published recipe for Coca-Cola. There is no patent for Coca-Cola. Legend has it that the great Coca-Cola recipe is locked somewhere in a safe in the city of Atlanta.
Nevertheless, thank goodness we do have another great iconic American symbol, Pepsi Cola, competing against it.
If I put a glass of Coke and a glass of Pepsi in front of you without telling you which is which, could you tell which is which? I hope Pepsi didn’t get its recipe through forced technology transfer, or left its fingerprints on that legendary Coke recipe!
But the fact that technology transfers eventually always happens doesn’t mean that its original owner is not going to put up a fight to guard it, just like what Trump is doing these days.
But the US president probably doesn’t have a clue about the days when America was sitting at the other end of the table, desperately seeking technology transfers.
How did America do it? Allow me to talk a bit about history.
Once upon a time, in the early to mid-1700s, America voraciously tried to seek British textile technologies.
The cunning Brits were of course ardently trying to safeguard their trade secret, embodied in the "living" or "dead instruments of trade," as Adam Smith used to call them.
The colonial-era Americans were very creative in circumventing the overbearing Brits. For example, one person named Coxe, sitting on the Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures in Philadelphia proposed a precise technique for procuring foreign technology, by asking people to search for Brits with such knowledge on every ship coming to the country and try to buy them off.
Coxe also reportedly contracted an English mechanic residing in Philadelphia to return to Britain and secure brass models of Arkwright machinery, which at the time, was state-of-the-art in terms of spinning design, and forwarded these to the American Minister in Paris Thomas Jefferson.
English customs officials somehow detected the subterfuge and stopped it. Trump must be ignorant about the fact that Thomas Jefferson was once engaged in industrial espionage!
I don’t mean to be an apologist for industrial espionage by telling that part of the history. Nevertheless, the point I am trying to make is that it is easy to make accusations of forced technology transfers, but difficult to substantiate. This is because technology diffusion happens sooner or later no matter what. And there was a time in history, when America was very much like today’s China, eager to learn, and experiment.