A U.S. law firm specializing in cross-border matters has opened its first office in China recently, aiming to assist local companies with legal issues against the background of a spate of spying charges against Chinese nationals.
The law firm, Alston & Bird, opened its Beijing office on January 27, marking the first overseas branch of the law firm.
The firm has served as counsel to a number of Chinese clients, including Tianjin University's Professor Zhang Hao, who was charged in the U.S. with economic espionage and theft of trade secrets.
Six suspects have been accused of stealing microelectronic designs from American companies on behalf of the Chinese government, The New York Times reported in 2015.
Zhang was arrested when he landed at Los Angeles International Airport after being invited to an international academic meeting. The Chinese media have accused the FBI of luring Zhang to the U.S. with a fake invite to arrest him.
The firm is also representing Xu Jiaqiang, a former software engineer for IBM in China, who is under arrest for allegedly stealing proprietary source code from his former employer. Similarly, Xu's father claimed in a previous Global Times interview that his son was arrested by U.S. police after being invited to attend an academic event.
Against the background of such charges against Chinese companies and scientists, some Chinese scientists in the U.S. are now anxious, said Yitai Hu, an intellectual property litigator and chief representative of the Alston & Bird office in Beijing, citing complaints from a senior Chinese professor about how he feared attending academic meetings in the U.S.
Innocent until proven guilty
Zhang is currently under house arrest in northern California and a trial is scheduled to start in March, according to Hu.
Xu was indicted in a federal court in White Plains, New York with one count of theft of a trade secret in December 2015, with the prosecutor accusing him of trying to sell stolen code to other companies, Reuters reported.
Hu told the Global Times that Xu has not been treated unfairly so far. "I want to stand up for Zhang and Xu. After what happened to them, most of their so-called friends stopped contacting them, which is disappointing … It may be because they are frightened by the actions taken by the U.S. government, and fear that they will also be targeted," Hu said.
"One is innocent till proven guilty under the U.S. law. You can hear them talking about morality and ethics, but their actions often contradict this," Zhou Shijian, a senior research fellow at the Center for U.S.-China Relations at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.
With the rising occurrence of international legal disputes, Richard R. Hays, managing partner of Alston & Bird, said it is yet to be seen whether the disputes are results of increased business cooperation or bilateral conflicts.
Apart from economic issues, the accusations of corporate espionage may reflect that the U.S. "feels challenged" in high-tech industry, according to Hu, adding that there are speculations that the U.S. prefers to settle business disputes in the U.S. as they believe the legal system in China is still faulty.
Hu added that some Chinese companies overseas are inexperienced in handling intellectual property cases, usually trying to evade problems rather than ignore them.
The FBI tends to resort to commercial litigation in trade disputes with European firms, while taking a different way when it comes to Chinese, Hu noted. The U.S. tends to look at Chinese people and enterprises with suspicion and politicizes those cases, he argued.
Zhang, along with another suspect in the case, Pang Wei, another a professor at Tianjin University, gained their doctorates in the U.S. and worked for different American companies until 2009, when they went back to China to assume teaching posts and later launched a joint-stock company with Tianjin University.
According to their indictments, they stole communication technologies that have military applications on behalf of China, which is an act of "espionage."
"The question is how to define stealing business secrets in high-tech industries. Is it forbidden to use experience gained from working or studying in the U.S. and innovate on this basis?" Hu questioned.
The U.S. has historically been on guard against espionage, especially when it comes to Communist countries, Zhou said. "It is definitely a disadvantage that Chinese people tend to run away from lawsuits when the U.S. believes an innocent man would defend himself."