Daily Drip

Trade Wars, Attack of the Drones: China-on-China Patent Dispute in US Sparks Backlash

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When an American drone company filed a lawsuit attempting to keep Shenzhen drone manufacturer DJI out of the US, it seemed like just another day in the ongoing China-US trade war. That news came to be viewed in a different light however, when readers discovered that the “American drone company” in question was actually Chinese.

DJI is a leading manufacturer of drones, holding a 72% market share in 2017, according to US market consultancy Skylogic Research. They create some of the highest performing and most widely-used drones on the market today. Autel, a much smaller competitor, filed a lawsuit against DJI, arguing that the latter had infringed on two patents owned by Autel, and asking the ITC to ban DJI from importing products to the US.

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Unfortunately for Autel, the minutiae of day-to-day corporate grappling became a national hot topic when the Ministry of Commerce published an official statement on its website about the dispute. Clickbait headlines asked “Is the US Moving to Attack DJI?!”

Readers quickly discovered that Autel is actually owned by Shenzhen Daotong Intelligent Aviation, operating out of the same city as DJI. Rather than a new example of China-US trade tension, it turned out to be a case of two Chinese companies fighting it out abroad. But by then, netizens had already associated the lawsuit aggressor with hurting Chinese trade, and were quick to shame Autel for trying to shoulder out its countrymen. Social media commenters called the move malignant, and some users wished for Autel’s bankruptcy.

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Kind of a sad situation for the company, which is already much smaller than DJI, and was just trying to keep its head above water. We can’t say we know anything about drone patents, so we don’t know who’s right. But Autel and DJI have been trading lawsuits in China, the US, and Europe for years. It was just the wrong time for this non-news of business chessplay to come out, while China’s public is extra-sensitive to issues of Chinese trade in the US. An Autel representative’s non-apology to news site jiemian.com sounds exactly as tired and annoyed as you’d expect:

“The lawsuit has nothing to do with the China-US trade war, although we didn’t think carefully of the timing.”

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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