In recent research, Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree of Georgia Institute of Technology have found that there are thousands of standards being proposed every year in China, and the state enforces hundreds of new standards annually. They argue that the Chinese state has induced domestic corporations and research institutes to join the innovation arms race of technological standard-making with enhanced social visibility, abundant financial support, and lucrative monopoly rents. It seems that the world’s industrial juggernaut is waging a total war on the battleground of technology standards.
Yet some observers have raised doubts about the actual contribution of indigenous innovation to the technology standards war. In several high profile cases of China’s “own” technology standards, foreign technology partners controlled the majority of the patents embedded in these standards. Three global telecommunications leaders contributed up to 66% of all patents used in TD-SCDMA, while Datang, the state appointed national champion, holds only 7.3%. In the case of CHBD, China’s own high-definition blue-ray videodisc technology, the technology alliance formed by Chinese companies purchased 90% of the patents from foreign technology partners, mostly Toshiba, the Japanese consumer electronics giant. Despite the question of whether the Chinese standard is really made in China, researchers like Breznitz and Murphree have also pointed out that competing standards may force Chinese companies to hedge the risk of being marginalized in the market by spreading their already thin R&D expenditure over the development of several lines of incompatible products, which in turn diminishes the possibilities of major breakthroughs.
Does this mean that China’s standard-making efforts are a waste of money? Probably not. The Chinese state and Chinese industry have benefited from this strategy in two ways. The first is the reduced royalties that Chinese industry has to pay to foreign standard owners. Chinese exporters are well known for relying on foreign standardized technology for production, and royalty payments burden their thin profit margins from assembling imported components. A classic example is the Chinese video compact disc (VCD) player industry, which exploded in the mid-1990s, but went into a crash when foreigners tightened their revenue-collecting efforts in the late 1990s. After the introduction of indigenous technology standards, dramatic changes occurred. With the emergence of a credible threat that they would be cut off from the Chinese market, foreign standard owners significantly lowered the royalty payments that they demanded. In some extreme cases such as WCDMA handsets, Chinese manufacturers paid lower royalties than anywhere else. Indeed in most sectors, China does not seek to replace the global standard with the domestic one; instead, it uses the development of an indigenous standard as a source of bargaining power.
The other benefit is the opportunity of engaging in technological learning and technological leverage. The lucrative rewards of holding a state-selected standard have drawn Chinese corporations into the innovation race. For many of these companies, it is necessary for the first time to have a formal structure supporting R&D activities. For fear of losing a large market like China, multinational corporations are also compelled to engage in China’s standard making projects. Local firms thus are provided with ample opportunities to learn from foreign partners by working with them and forming partnerships. A proven example is Huawei, which greatly accelerated its pace of technology development by forming partnerships with global leaders in all three competing 3G-network technologies.