China blocks observer status for Wikimedia in WIPO over Taiwan political sensitivities

China blocks observer status for Wikimedia in WIPO over Taiwan political sensitivities

Powerplay by Beijing part of growing rivalry between U.S. and China for global leadership

In a surprise move, China recently blocked the US-based Wikimedia Foundation—Wikipedia's parent—from being granted observer status as an international NGO to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) over objections the Foundation was carrying out political activities via its Wikimedia Taiwan chapter.

The Chinese delegation’s representative told the Geneva-based UN Specialized Agency’s assembly:  "There is reason to believe this foundation has been carrying out political activities through its member organizations,” which could undermine the state’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity" and is therefore not fitting for the foundation to serve as an observer.

WIPO diplomats and insiders say that aside from the political hot potato of Taiwan, other issues were also at play behind the move: the growing rivalry between the US and China for global leadership and influence in all spheres, topping the list. US ambassador Andrew Bremberg told delegates that The Wikimedia Foundation’s participation does not raise any questions about the political status of other member states.

The United Kingdom, speaking for the Group B of developed countries, along with the US and Canada, respectively, took the floor in support of giving the foundation the green light, while Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, lined up behind China's concerns. “The objection by the Chinese delegation limits Wikimedia’s ability to engage with WIPO and interferes with the Foundation’s mission to strengthen access to free knowledge everywhere. We urge WIPO members, including China, to withdraw their objection and approve our application.”

Amanda Keton, General Counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation, said in a press statement. “The Wikimedia Foundation operates Wikipedia, one of the most popular sources of information for people around the world. Our organization can provide insights into global issues surrounding intellectual property, copyright law, and treaties addressed by WIPO that ensure access to free knowledge and information,” Keton noted. WIPO diplomats familiar with the two days of backroom talks that tried to resolve the Wikimedia issue ahead of the General Assembly (on September 23), told the Geneva Observer the Taiwan issue was decisive.

Reflecting on the decision, James Pooley, a former WIPO Deputy Director-General (DD-G), told The Geneva Observer: “Just based on general principles, it doesn't surprise me that Wikimedia would get in trouble with China in part because it's trying to put data out there and calls Taiwan, Taiwan. It was sort of inevitable that it would run into diplomatic trouble, and China exercises influence. It did not seem surprising to me, although one might think China would pick its fights. Fighting over one's access as an observer to WIPO meetings doesn't strike me as terribly consequential."

China is "hyper, hypersensitive these days to anything that appears to challenge their world view," said one observer who asked not to be identified.  As Kristine Lee, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told the South China Morning Post, "In the last two years, China has been more strategic about its approach to the UN. It sees the UN as an instrument to advance its policy ambitions in the way the United States simply hasn't." Geneva-based diplomats say this can be seen in many UN fora, from the UN Human Rights Council to WHO and the WTO, among others.

The megaphone diplomacy between Beijing and Washington in the run-up to elect a new WIPO Director-General in which the Chinese-backed candidate, Ms. Wang Binying, a WIPO DD-G, lost to the US- and Western-backed Singaporean Daren Tang, (by 55 votes to 28,) is a reflection of the new reality of Beijing's determination to assert its influence, say top Western diplomats.  

"Where WIPO is concerned, China perceives that it recently suffered an embarrassment around the election of the new Director-General. It could have something to do with asserting itself, it could be putting the markers down on the table," Pooley told The Geneva Observer, adding “this is a shot across the bows in terms of the influence China expects it will exercise at WIPO, and therefore a message to the new Director-General that he's going to have to pay attention and deal with China respectfully. It could be that."

As one intellectual property expert put it, in many ways, WIPO is "the blueprint for the 21st Century. All the latest technologies pass through the WIPO-administered Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). That's highly important."  "The reality is China is competing more forcefully than ever, in a business sense, with the US for influence, and just at a technical level, they've thrown down the gauntlet in emerging technologies like AI and 5G and quantum computers, and standing up to China is a popular political position," a Washington insider told The Geneva Observer, speaking on the condition of non-attribution. The same source pointed out, "I think the basic idea that China represents a real, and existential challenge, to a US technological superiority, that's going to carry over" even if there is a change in administration in Washington; although the style of diplomacy towards China might be more nuanced and more predictable compared to the adversarial, "surprise and harass" style of the Trump administration.  

Diplomatic sources say that the days when Washington was the supreme mover and shaker are over but that many in Washington, and some other western capitals, have been "in denial" of the new reality.

A veteran WIPO expert says Tang will have his work cut out trying to deal with the growing geo-political tensions, and this could prove very challenging.   WIPO technical delegates told The Geneva Observer the Foundation has a lot of expertise in the copyright area and would add value to the agency's work.

WIPO's ruling General Assembly decided to defer the matter until the next meeting in 2021.