MNC R&D Labs in China -- IP Protection and Innovation for the Global Market

The following is a short summary of the November 29, 2005 presentation by SPRIE Fellow Dr. Xiaohong (Iris) Quan on her study of the research and development done by multinational corporations in China.

Multinational corporations (MNCs) have increasingly located research and development (R&D) in developing countries such as China and India since the 1990s. On the one hand, governments in developing countries are eager to attract R&D to their local economies; on the other hand, developed countries are concerned about losing their competitive advantage due to R&D offshoring. At the same time, intellectual property protection is a growing concern.

What are the MNC R&D labs actually doing in China? Quan noted that her 2004 survey of MNC R&D labs in information technology industries in Beijing found that these MNC R&D labs are not just providing technical support, product localization, or product development for the local market; rather, they are developing products for the global market. Her study documents an emerging spatial division of labor in R&D based on the increasing specialization of R&D activities.

Ensuring returns appropriation

Appropriating returns is essential to continuous R&D investment. However, returns appropriation is not necessarily realized through formal IP protection institutions such as the patent system. As the growing trend of globalization of R&D has evolved to this new stage characterized by MNCs locating R&D labs in developing countries, it provides a good test bed to further explore more theoretical mechanisms of IP protection. Considering the weak intellectual property rights regimes these developing countries typically have, it is crucial for MNCs to find an effective way to protect their valuable technologies thus facilitating returns appropriation from their R&D activities in host developing regions. It is in fact the effective means of IP protection that can greatly assist MNCs' location of R&D offshore, in addition to other well-known incentives such as low cost R&D labor and market attraction.

R&D specialization essential

Using evidence from MNC R&D labs in Beijing and Shanghai, Quan's study proposes that R&D is further specialized within MNCs' global R&D network. Furthermore, IP protection and returns appropriation can be realized through such R&D specialization. The key proposition is formulated as below: 'Hierarchical modular R&D structure can be an effective way for MNC R&D labs to protect their intellectual property and thus facilitate returns appropriation in weak IPR regime developing countries'. This 'hierarchy' includes 'core R&D' and 'peripheral R&D', based on two dimensions--technology value-added, desire and ease of IP protection. While 'core R&D' is mostly done in developed countries, 'peripheral R&D' is conducted in developing countries. Dr. Quan's study suggests that this hierarchical modular R&D structure facilitates the global configuration of MNC R&D labs.

Slides from this presentation can be found at the event link below.