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The Real History of Intellectual Piracy

What China Can Learn From America

Customers at a Xiaomi product launch in Shenzhen, China, May 2018. Bobby Yip / REUTERS

Whether an economy thrives depends in large part on how it treats ideas, knowledge, and innovation. It was by democratizing technology markets that the United States came to dominate the global economy in the twentieth century. Now China has drawn up ambitious plans to become the world economic leader of the twenty-first century. Its strategies for doing so are controversial. The government restricts foreign firms from operating in China, Chinese companies pirate foreign copyrights, and many blatantly engage in industrial espionage to appropriate the trade secrets of their foreign competitors. China’s defenders invoke history to justify these violations of international norms. Today’s developed countries, they claim, were no better during their own rise to power.

The history of technology transfer in developed countries certainly provides ample examples of intellectual piracy, including early industrial espoinage of which China itself was the victim. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europeans

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