From Struggle to Surge: China's TRIPS Experience and Its Lessons for Access to Medicines

Peter K. Yu, Texas A&M University School of Law


The WTO TRIPS Agreement has imposed unprecedented burdens on countries in the developing world. In the public health arena, its high protection and enforcement standards have not only greatly jeopardized access to medicines—at both the domestic and international levels—but have also eroded the policy space and flexibilities developing countries need to devise solutions for public health challenges.

Although many developing and least developed countries continue to struggle with the high and arguably inappropriate TRIPS standards, large or populous emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and Thailand, have managed to adapt the TRIPS Agreement with some success. As economic and technological conditions improved, these emerging economies began to secure even greater benefits from the TRIPS-based intellectual property system, thereby initiating a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.

Of all emerging economies, no country provides a better illustration for a complete transformation of its intellectual property system and pharmaceutical landscape than China. This chapter therefore aims to document the country's journey from its struggle with the TRIPS Agreement to its recent surge in the global pharmaceutical arena. It begins by recounting China's initial reluctance to introduce high and externally driven intellectual property standards, including the TRIPS standards that were introduced before and shortly after the country's accession to the WTO. The chapter then discusses China's innovative turn, which began in the mid-2000s when its leaders made a major policy push toward the development of independent innovation. The chapter further examines the recently proposed amendments to Chinese patent law and pharmaceutical regulations. It concludes with five distinct lessons that China's TRIPS experience has provided for the debate on the TRIPS Agreement and access to medicines.