The American Bar Association’s (ABA) “Antitrust in Asia: China” Conference, held in Beijing May 21-23 (with Chinese Government and academic support), cast a spotlight on the growing economic importance of China’s six-year old Anti-Monopoly Law (AML). The Conference brought together 250 antitrust practitioners and government officials to discuss AML enforcement policy. These included the leaders (Directors General) of the three Chinese competition agencies (those agencies are units within the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), the Ministry of Foreign Commerce (MOFCOM), and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)), plus senior competition officials from Europe, Asia, and the United States. This was noteworthy in itself, in that the three Chinese antitrust enforcers seldom appear jointly, let alone with potential foreign critics. The Chinese agencies conceded that Chinese competition law enforcement is not problem free and that substantial improvements in the implementation of the AML are warranted.
With the proliferation of international business arrangements subject to AML jurisdiction, multinational companies have a growing stake in the development of economically sound Chinese antitrust enforcement practices. Achieving such a result is no mean feat, in light of the AML’s (Article 27) explicit inclusion of industrial policy factors, significant institutional constraints on the independence of the Chinese judiciary, and remaining concerns about transparency of enforcement policy, despite some progress. Nevertheless, Chinese competition officials and academics at the Conference repeatedly emphasized the growing importance of competition and the need to improve Chinese antitrust administration, given the general pro-market tilt of the 18th Communist Party Congress. (The references to Party guidance illustrate, of course, the continuing dependence of Chinese antitrust enforcement patterns on political forces that are beyond the scope of standard legal and policy analysis.)
While the Conference covered the AML’s application to the standard antitrust enforcement topics (mergers, joint conduct, cartels, unilateral conduct, and private litigation), the treatment of price-related “abuses” and intellectual property (IP) merit particular note.
In a panel dealing with the investigation of price-related conduct by the NDRC (the agency responsible for AML non-merger pricing violations), NDRC Director General Xu Kunlin revealed that the agency is deemphasizing much-criticized large-scale price regulation and price supervision directed at numerous firms, and is focusing more on abuses of dominance, such as allegedly exploitative “excessive” pricing by such firms as InterDigital and Qualcomm. (Resale price maintenance also remains a source of some interest.) On May 22, 2014, the second day of the Conference, the NDRC announced that it had suspended its investigation of InterDigital, given that company’s commitment not to charge Chinese companies “discriminatory” high-priced patent licensing fees, not to bundle licenses for non-standard essential patents and “standard essential patents” (see below), and not to litigate to make Chinese companies accept “unreasonable” patent license conditions. The NDRC also continues to investigate Qualcomm for allegedly charging discriminatorily high patent licensing rates to Chinese customers. Having the world’s largest consumer market, and fast growing manufacturers who license overseas patents, China possesses enormous leverage over these and other foreign patent licensors, who may find it necessary to sacrifice substantial licensing revenues in order to continue operating in China.
The theme of ratcheting down on patent holders’ profits was reiterated in a presentation by SAIC Director General Ren Airong (responsible for AML non-merger enforcement not directly involving price) on a panel discussing abuse of dominance and the antitrust-IP interface. She revealed that key patents (and, in particular, patents that “read on” and are necessary to practice a standard, or “standard essential patents”) may well be deemed “necessary” or “essential” facilities under the final version of the proposed SAIC IP-Antitrust Guidelines. In effect, implementation of this requirement would mean that foreign patent holders would have to grant licenses to third parties under unfavorable government-set terms – a recipe for disincentivizing future R&D investments and technological improvements. Emphasizing this negative effect, co-panelists FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen and I pointed out that the “essential facilities” doctrine has been largely discredited by leading American antitrust scholars. (In a separate speech, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez also argued against treating patents as essential facilities.) I added that IP does not possess the “natural monopoly” characteristics of certain physical capital facilities such as an electric grid (declining average variable cost and uneconomic to replicate), and that competitors’ incentives to develop alternative and better technology solutions would be blunted if they were given automatic cheap access to “important” patents. In short, the benefits of dynamic competition would be undermined by treating patents as essential facilities. I also noted that, consistent with decision theory, wise competition enforcers should be very cautious before condemning single firm behavior, so as not to chill efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct. Director General Ren did not respond to these comments.
If China is to achieve its goal of economic growth driven by innovation, it should seek to avoid legally handicapping technology market transactions by mandating access to, or otherwise restricting returns to, patents. As recognized in the U.S. Justice Department-Federal Trade Commission 1995 IP-Antitrust Guidelines and 2007 IP-Antitrust Report, allowing the IP holder to seek maximum returns within the scope of its property right advances innovative welfare-enhancing economic growth. As China’s rapidly growing stock of IP matures and gains in value, it hopefully will gain greater appreciation for that insight, and steer its competition policy away from the essential facilities doctrine and other retrograde limitations on IP rights holders that are inimical to long term innovation and welfare.