China Vies to Run UN Patent Office in Bid for Fifth Leadership

March 4, 2020 Updated: March 4, 2020

GENEVA—A Chinese lawyer is one of two Asian favorites to head the world patent office, a post that would give Beijing its fifth UN leadership role and, according to its critics, an unprecedented level of influence over new technologies.

Voting opened on Mar. 4 at the 193-member Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which shapes global rules for intellectual property and oversees a patent system in which China and its firms, like telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, have a growing stake.

The Coordinating Committee, a group of 83 countries chaired by France, met behind closed doors to choose a nominee. Whoever is chosen needs to be confirmed at a general assembly in May.

China’s Wang Binying, a career diplomat and a senior manager at the agency, and Singapore’s Daren Tang are among the favorites of six candidates, diplomats and former employees say, in what one of them described as a “polarized election.”

Under the leadership of outgoing Australian Director-General Francis Gurry, WIPO has overseen an explosion in patent filings and has begun preliminary talks on whether artificial intelligence, or machines, can be inventors.

The U.N. agency, unlike many others which are underfunded, expects revenues of 880 million Swiss francs ($921 million) in 2020-2021, mostly due to patent filing fees, it says on its website.

China already has its nationals heading four UN agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Industrial Development Organization and the International Telecommunications Union.

That is more than any other member state in what the International Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan described as part of a bid “to win more influence” within the world body, especially in economic and development fields.

Watching ‘Very, Very Closely’

Intellectual property (IP) has been at the heart of a trade war between the United States, which along with other Western countries backs Tang, and China.

However, a January trade deal includes stronger Chinese legal protections for patents.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters last month that Washington was following the vote “very, very closely” and would “make sure that whoever runs that organization understands the importance of enforcing intellectual property rights across nations and across boundaries.”

The other candidates in the running are from Ghana, Peru, Colombia and Kazakhstan.

Candidates have been showcased at cocktail parties and missions have exchanged “note verbale” with vote pledges in recent weeks, diplomats said.

WIPO members vote by secret ballot and campaign videos have not been made public.

By Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay