When I lived in China, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues on the nature of trust. My Chinese colleague pointed out that, in China, it was never deemed necessary to have formal written contracts between employers and employees, or between business partners, because the concept of reciprocity, a deeply-held Chinese value, ensured that each party would honour it’s commitment to an agreement. He held that, because people held relationships with such high regard and honour, a paper contract could never carry the weight of the trust and bond that had developed between two people. Whilst, to my Western sensibilities, the signing of a contract represented a way of protecting each party, and thereby protecting the relationship, he perceived the signing of a contract as a symbol that each party did not trust the other!
I’ve reflected a lot on this conversation in relation to certain standards that the West likes to hold China accountable to. One of these is the importance of protecting intellectual property.
I work in the cultural sector and intellectual property is one of the hottest topics in discussion today, not least in relation to China. I have also written about creativity and innovation in China. Western companies are often deeply concerned about the scant regard given to intellectual property in China and continue to pressure the government on reforms in this area. China also recognizes the imperative of innovation in order for the country to continue to be competitive and it is often assumed that the lack of adequate protection of intellectual property is a barrier to innovation.
But I would like to explore the idea that intellectual property protection might just be a form of modern-day colonialism, the desire to draw borders and delineate what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours. Any creative practitioner knows that ideas are ephemeral, abundant and sometimes fleeting, and require solid application to turn them into anything of real value. And, critically, that they are rarely formed in a vacuum and are inspired and developed usually by more than one mind. Collaboration and iteration of another’s idea is a key part of the creative process and contrary to this concept of creating fixed and immovable ideas of who ‘owns’ a creative idea.
Of course, it is extremely important that any creative practitioner be adequately rewarded and compensated for their work. And multinational corporations have a lot to answer for anyway, in how they also use and exploit the ideas of others in the first place, to achieve their valuable patents!
But, in my own work, I have also come to understand something else. That our value is never static. We can never live off the creation or production of a unique idea if we are not continuing to grow, evolve and develop that idea. And especially if it doesn’t create value for large parts of humanity. Our value comes less from a single, ‘patented’ idea that freezes in time and can thus stockpile income for ourselves once we have done the work but from continued renewal, refreshment, iteration – and sharing. Our value and reward comes from what we continue to give and produce. I have seen how, when I try to protect an idea or asset from another using and developing it, the quality of the idea diminishes in value and ceases to have meaning for anyone, least of all me. On the contrary, when I openly share and create, my value is evident to others and, critically, I continue to be rewarded and respected for what I create. China’s fast pace of change means that we are forced to continue to be relevant and not sit on our laurels, basking in past glory. In many respects, this also echoes some of the challenges that ‘old’ Europe is experiencing in competition with ‘new’ China. We can no longer afford to be complacent about what we offer, retreating into protectionist ideals and colonial models of power, control and ownership, but must move forward by using creativity and innovation as our means for survival.
Furthermore, there is a more compelling reason to rethink how we consider intellectual property, especially when it comes to what it can do for the world. We are all familiar with the ongoing battle between drug companies and their patent protection laws in the face of impoverished African nations, trying to develop their own generic drugs to cure AIDS, malaria etc. To my mind, a generous spirit creates a virtuous circle that can only ever pay back dividends to all.
It seems to me that trust is key. Going back to my colleague in China all those years ago, I have been left with the impression that we could all do with opening our mind and heart to the lessons that China has to teach US, before being so quick to condemn China for not meeting international standards. Whilst international standards are important, and respect and adequate compensation are a necessary part of the creative process to incentivize innovation, a more refined sense of what constitutes our real value could well make for a more enlightened global leadership.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.