CNBC highlights how the NBA is China’s most popular sports league, but despite that popularity, the league couldn’t steer clear of controversy in the country. From Daryl Morey’s tweet that ignited a worldwide scandal to the Michael Jordan-versus-Qiaodan Sports case, it seems as if “basketball diplomacy” has replaced the Cold-War era’s “ping pong diplomacy.”
Accordingly, the eight-year legal dispute between Michael Jordan and the Chinese fashion and streetwear company Qiaodan Sports, which fell in Michael Jordan’s favor, shouldn’t be seen as a simple trademark case. Instead, it can be seen as an act of public diplomacy. Sports have been used as an engine for cultural diplomacy in the past, and Beijing has even incorporated basketball in its national branding campaign, using it to amend the country’s relationship with the US and convey its positive attributes and values to the world.
But make no mistake, the highly-celebrated win for Jordan is a win for the American business community. Yet it also shows that, despite the two countries’ differences, China can act like a mature and fair partner. While President Trump throws temper tantrums on Twitter and goes to war against corporate America by squabbling with retailers like Amazon, social media sites, and businesses that have moved jobs overseas, Beijing comes off as an efficient, reliable, and composed partner by putting business community interests first — and this stance benefits the country’s image immensely.
In past years, the “Made in China” label had been associated with cheap knockoffs and counterfeit consumer goods. The global view was that Beijing refused to tackle intellectual property infringements when promoting the production of cheap goods. However, the Michael Jordan-versus-Qiaodan Sports case indicates that there is a new direction in the country.
It’s worth noting that the change didn’t come overnight and isn’t the first time the Chinese Supreme Court ruled in favor of a prominent global brand or athlete. In 2017, New Balance won a $1.5 million lawsuit against three Chinese shoemakers that were using the sportswear company’s slanted “N” logo. Despite those precedents, it can be argued that the Michael Jordan-versus-Qiaodan Sports case changed views on China for good, with political ramifications that are indisputable.
Sports Illustrated explains how the ruling “was announced at a time when the US and China are implementing a new trade deal and one which emphasizes the protection of intellectual property rights.” But the publication also makes an excellent point by arguing that the case wasn’t as “straightforward” as it may have seemed.
Sports Illustrated also mentions assessments from the IP-law expert Laura Wen-yu Young via her Trademark Reporter article, “Understanding Michael Jordan v. Qiaodan: Historical Anomaly or Systemic Failure to Protect Chinese Consumers?” According to Young, “Qiaodan” has different meanings, and both Sports Illustrated and Young argue that there are “a variety of ways of writing Michael Jordan’s name in Chinese.” Consequently, Young makes the case that “Qiaodan” can be seen as a “rough transliteration” of Jordan’s surname but not a direct translation into “Michael Jordan.
“Transliteration is different from translation since it involves using letters of another language to most closely approximate the sound and pronunciation of a word. Unlike a translation, a transliteration doesn’t concern the meaning of a word,” says Michael McCann, a legal analyst and a writer for Sports Illustrated. McCann makes another interesting argument when he says that Michael Jordan hadn’t licensed the name “Qiaodan” for business purposes, and he conducted his business dealings under the name Michael Jordan or Jordan Brand, not Qiaodan. Lastly, McCann argues that even if Qiaodan means “Jordan,” it’s not necessarily Michael Jordan since there were other NBA players with Jordan as a surname.
Basically, the case is up for interpretation, yet China awarded Jordan the win. While we could interpret this case as a clear sign that China is swiftly changing its direction, one has to wonder if more stretches like this wouldn’t anger the Chinese public, pushing them to boycott American companies and products. In fact, the US has been accused of such “IP Imperialism” in the past, which backfires when countries boycott American products.
In her article What’s Mine Is Mine But What’s Yours Is Ours: IP Imperialism, The Right Of Publicity, And Intellectual Property Social Justice in the Digital Information Age, Lateef Mtima says that “Many contemporary IP-rights conflicts are simply the result of enduring attitudes of Western Imperialism.” Mtima traces this trend of maintaining power back to America’s nascent years when “quasi-imperialist attitudes toward intellectual property rights were seen as serving the country’s immediate interests as a developing nation.”
Considering the mistakes of the past and the boycotts of American products that followed them, the US must understand that it walks on a thin line. It can no longer afford its belligerent and aggressive attitude in a highly-digitized and connected world where consumers learn about legal disputes in a matter of minutes. That is especially true in China — a country where consumers are already familiar with boycotts against American products.
In fact, Brunswick’s 2019 US-China Trade Tracker, which is based on the views of 1,000 American consumers and 1,000 Chinese consumers, showed that 56 percent of Chinese consumers have boycotted an American product “to show support for China.”
Furthermore, the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand survey showed that 64 percent of consumers around the world — all income levels — will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue.
“This is the birth of Brand Democracy; as consumers are electing brands as their change agents,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “Brands are now being pushed to go beyond their classic business interests to become advocates. It is a new relationship between company and consumer, where the purchase is premised on the brand’s willingness to live its values, act with purpose, and if necessary, make the leap into activism.”
China’s record of continuous trademark infringements has cast a long shadow over the hope for new reforms. However, recent events show that the Chinese government has punished intellectual property infringers. The country still has a long way to go, though, and it’s safe to say that a complete IPR protection system cannot be successfully established overnight. But on the whole, both China and the US need to act more carefully while considering stakeholder interests. Cooperation will not be achieved through one-sided arguments and angry rhetoric, so both sides must show an appreciation for past efforts.
American companies have to overcome their mistrust of the Chinese government and understand that local consumers interpret attacks against Beijing or Chinese officials as attacks on their values, cultural norms, and national symbols. Likewise, China must continue on a path of deep reform while also safeguarding stakeholder interests.