Jacob Schindler

A powerful policy committee within the Chinese Communist Party held its first meeting of Xi Jinping’s second term as General Secretary this week. Xi, of course, is also president of the People's Republic. The report that emerged from the get-together names judicial IP reforms as one of just a handful of top national priorities, alongside pressing issues like water pollution and a shortage of doctors and teachers.

Chaired by President Xi himself and stacked with high-ranking politburo members, the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform sets broad directions for national economic reforms that are implemented across all levels of the Chinese government. Such party leading groups, China-watchers say, are the country’s top decision-making fora, and the reform group has been identified as the most powerful of these. As far as policy decision-making goes in China, this is about as high level as it gets.

According to the Chinese business journal Caixin’s readout of the meeting, one of the documents the group endorsed was a list of recommendations to reform the judicial system for the better protection of intellectual property rights. The group reportedly called on the judiciary to “play a greater role in protecting intellectual property and innovation”, and called for better training of professionals serving in China’s specialised IP courts in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and beyond.

The next step, Caixin says, will be for the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) to outline specific reform priorities in the coming months. The word on the street is that the SPC has already decided to recommend the creation of a specialised IP appeals court which plays a similar role to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Elsewhere, we may see more intermediate-level IP tribunals springing up – they already exist in second-tier cities including Wuhan, Nanjing, Suzhou and Chengdu.

It is telling that the Leading Group specifically calls for improved training of professionals working in specialised IP venues. The principle advantage of these courts, patent owners say, is the guarantee that the judge hearing the case will be an experienced patent expert, assisted by top-notch technical staff. But the pool of IP talent is limited and the judicial system has struggled to retain staff over the years, with private sector opportunities offering better pay. You can open an IP court in every province, but if they’re not presided over by true specialists, it won’t make much difference.

Nevertheless, the few snippets of the recommendations translated above seem to confirm that judicial authorities are in the driver’s seat when it comes to further IP reforms. This matters because administrative bodies have also tried to play a bigger role in the IP enforcement system – a trend foreign rights holders on both the patent and trademark sides have viewed with caution. It also suggests that IP specialisation in China is here to stay.

The Leading Group’s decision this week codifies a policy direction already sketched out by Xi in July. In a speech that garnered a lot of attention around the world, the Chinese president declared that: “Wrongdoing should be punished more severely so that IP infringers will pay a heavy price.” More recently, IP got one mention in Xi’s marathon 19th Party Congress speech last month, as he called for China to become a “country of innovators” and create a “market-oriented system for technological innovation”.