Catch-up is how economists explain the success of China and other fast-growing developing economies. Not having to invent the wheel, the microchip or the theory of continuous improvement is a distinct advantage over having to invent them.
This is not a small part of the Huawei story. Its rise in 32 years to be the world’s largest telecom-equipment manufacturer and the second largest maker of smartphones is a story of catch-up—of learning from the West, but also stealing from the West. Or to put it more politely, Huawei has taken advantage of the fact that Beijing is not interested in enforcing the intellectual-property rights of foreigners under Chinese law.
An early Huawei router design was shown to have been filched from Cisco, right down to copying the typos in the instruction manual. This week a U.S. criminal indictment piggybacking on a successful private lawsuit by T-Mobile shows persuasively that Huawei stole the design of a robot, known as Tappy, for testing the durability of cell phones.
Nobody in his right mind thinks these episodes are exceptions. Nobody even needed these episodes to suspect that Huawei’s spectacular success has not been the product entirely of its own ingenuity and hard work (though these have been considerable). U.S. and other Western companies also vigorously “learn” from each other right up to the limit prescribed by our patent laws. In China, there is no limit. Stealing is regarded as a national development strategy and patriotic duty. The U.S. indictment alleges that Huawei even offered bonuses to employees who successfully purloined a competitor’s trade secrets.
This might seem clever, but it points to a problem for China’s own development—and not only because it antagonizes trade partners. China wants higher-order technology and investment from the West. It won’t come if trade secrets aren’t honored and enforced. China’s own firms cannot develop to their potential, at home or globally, if their own intellectual property isn’t secure even as they are distrusted abroad as agents of Chinese spying.