Protecting your intellectual property

When I visited a Chinese company in Shenzhen a few weeks ago, this is what we had to do upon entering a facility and getting out of it.

The laboratory (which was supposed to be their software development center) was located in an apartment-like old building. They had a different nameplate and the reception was made of a half-broken wooden desk and a non-nonsense male receptionist (guard). He wore a uniform which was so much alike the one at the military or police station except for the absense of pistol, short haired, the body and the face and the eyes squared. He seemed to be capable of working as a stunt double for Jet Li. Calm, small yet stiff body. Following the Chinese guard rule #1, he rarely smiled except when occasionally female workers entered in.

When we arrived, despite we had an appointment and also a sales engineer from local distributor who can not only speak but yell, negotiate, joke with Mandarin accompanied us, we had to go through a full formal procedure just like any other pushy salespeople from local life insurance companies. People say the presense of somebody local is essential for business in China. So I guess if he weren’t there, we must had been kicked out from the building no matter what.

1. Write down every high-tech gadget we (as a guest) have, specially the one with storage function. Laptop, digital camera, mobile phone with digital camera, memory card, et cetera. Unless you definetely need it, you have to leave everthing at the reception, or guard.
I had a brand-new Sony Cybershot (500 mega-pixel) and did not declare. I was afraid they insist on showing the pictures inside it, which mainly consisted of eveything I thought was “weird” in China. They might question my intension, insist on deleting them or worse, they might take it away from me (this imagination is called discrimination, I admit). Also I didn’t want to miss the chance to picture something (weird), which already prevailed. I had recently watched “Spy game”, the one with Brad Pitt, so never had the guts to take out the camera out of the pocket and take the secret pictures.

2. Only one laptop was allowed to enter the laboratory behind the guard. Two of us submitted their laptops as mortgage, insurance, or hostage. Now my laptop had to do everything: running demo software and showing presentation.

3. The manager of the division with which we were going to have a meeting was called, he was asked to sign the gadget list we filled in. The manager was out of the office, and the junior manager came in. Of course the guard insisted on “genuine” manager to sign the paper and we waited on the cold half-landing for 30 minutes. We could at least chat. In English.

“Why don’t they let the junior guy sign that silly paper and let us in?”
“They never delegate the power to lower ranks: Whenever they do that, the employees always abuse it and corruption creeps in”
“There is no difference between the upper and lower level employees in terms of morale”
“That’s why everybody wants to become a manager here”

“Why is this building so dirty, so cluttered? I see the buckets and mops there, and I guess outside China they call here an apartment, probably the one the government builds”
“You don’t think there are cutting-edge developments going on here. It is a disguise”
I understood why there are so many spy movies running on China’s theaters. In 2002 Shanghai, I saw three Hollywood spy movies running concurrently at a complex. Spy Kids, 9 Days, and The Taxido.

4. The manager came back (he was around 35 years old: I never saw managers in their 40s in Shenzhen), signed the paper, and we went into ANOTHER reception room. There they started to wrap my laptop with silver tapes. The tapes blocked every I/O connectors: USB, serial port, PCM card… When I insisted we need the parallel cable for running product demo, they ordered me to connect the parallel cable first, THEN put the tape around it. When you take off that tape, some part of it falls off and left on the laptop – you will know immediately if that tape was taken off by an “unauthorised personnel”.

The demo was grueling but a good lesson. Every time we present some idea and show the software running, they point out some detail, particularly small flaws and say “This is wrong, you might be lying, how can we know it is true” in 100 different ways. In an attempt to make a friendly atmosphere, I spoke some Mandarin (“Hello, nice to meet you, let me know if you have any concern”) and after then, they started bombing me with those question all in Mandarin, all in full speed. I quickly admitted I was merely pretending I can speak and begged them to discuss in English but it was their turn to pretend and the English discussion never got back. I turned into the “listening mode” and after 30 minutes we understood their underlying message above and we promised we will come back with a very practical and easy method for them to check our legitimacy. Now they understand it.

5. We returned to the second reception room to take off the silver tape. And the guard (another one) finds out one of the silver tape, the one on the parallel port, was actually taken off (and put on again) before he does it! “What is this, only I can take this off, here you can see clearly somebody took the tape off, You can never deceive us” maybe this time 10 different ways.

I cut in, explaining it was my fault that I needed to re-adjust the tape because the demo didn’t work due to the poor connection (actually I took it off out of curiosity), but it seems to added fuel to his upset. He doesn’t talk to me, instead yell at the local sales rep (you need the local to do business…) and the sales rep demonstrates that the tape can easily taken off by adjusting the connection (of course not) for at least 5 times. Here you see, the tape falls off….connect, disconnect, connect, disconnect, connect…
The fuel was digested in 10 minutes and the still upset guard slowly takes off all the other tapes. My laptop, my lovely and beautifully black Thinkpad is now peppered with silver leftover from the tape.

At the exit (the first reception), the manager signs the paper again, the two laptops returned. Besides the two guards, there was absolutely nothing to stop the intruder from breaking into the lab. Each door wide open, the engineers working in the cubicles with their belongings scattered around, and the females never get checked upon entering.

“Everybody is afraid of the copy issue in China. And here they frantically try to protect their intellectual properties. Isn’t it unfair? If they think copying is not such an issue (that’s certainly one way to think of it), then they should be equally open to anybody who wants to copy from them”
“Well, this company is different. They have a strong policy not to copy from others and not to let others copy. It is stated in their corporate policy”
The sales rep chuckles. This chuckle. The secret is there.

I will keep asking the same question. Someday somebody will explain to me in a clear way.