While Donald Trump was blasting China for the way it does business with the world on the campaign trail last year, his lawyers in that country were applying for trademarks under his name there. And China has recently granted preliminary approval to 38 of them.
The new Trump trademarks include hotels, branded spa and massage services, golf clubs, restaurants, bars, and, most eye-catchingly of all, escort services, according to the Associated Press. Trump’s legal team applied for the trademarks last April, and they’re set to be finalized in 90 days.
This development raises a dizzying array of questions about Trump’s intentions in China and huge potential for conflicts of interest. But first let’s establish what this means —- and what it doesn’t.
First of all, the fact that Trump has registered a trademark for a certain kind of business in China doesn’t necessarily mean he has any intention of pursuing some kind of enterprise under that trademark in the near future, if at all. It’s not uncommon for businesses to file for trademarks in other countries defensively, to ensure that others don’t use their name for their own enrichment. That’s likely to be an especially big priority for Trump, since much of his wealth comes from marketing goods under his name that were made by other companies rather than building things on his own.
In China, “trademark squatting” — when someone uses trademark registration to free-ride on the popularity of an established brand in another country — is commonplace. In fact, in China, Trump is already the victim of many instances of it. As Simon Denyer notes at the Washington Post, Trump’s name is used on dozens of products, including pesticides, paints, and condoms, by people who have nothing to do with Trump or the Trump Organization. And now it’s Ivanka Trump’s turn, who appears to be more popular than her father in China: 258 trademark applications have been submitted under variations of her name recently for products ranging from diet pills to sanitary napkins, and none of them are actually linked to her.
It’s also important to note that Trump’s interest in China isn’t new. In February he won a decade-long legal battle in China to wrest back control of his name for Trump-branded construction services, for example. So his interest in China certainly predates his 2016 presidential ambitions.
Trump could argue that any or all of the Trump trademarks are just a matter of protecting Trump’s brand internationally from counterfeiters. And indeed, the chief lawyer of the Trump Organization, Alan Garten, has said just that. "The latest registrations are a natural result of those longstanding, diligent efforts and any suggestion to the contrary demonstrates a complete disregard of the facts as well as a lack of understanding of international trademark law," he told the AP in an email.
That being said, it would be naive to assume Trump would only register trademarks defensively in the counterfeit capital of the world and has no interest in making use of any of them in the future. In fact, it seems likely. He’s had his eye on China’s real estate market since at least 2008, and made at least one brief but ultimately unsuccessful deal there in partnership with China’s state-owned company State Grid. In October, Trump Hotel Collection CEO Eric Danziger told a crowd at a Hong Kong conference that the company plans to “build 20 to 30 Trump Hotels in major Chinese cities in the coming years,” according to NPR.
The Chinese government — literally the owner of a company that Trump has tried doing business with in the past — surely knows this. And Beijing, which has an interest in influencing the new president’s China policy to suit its own needs, could easily try to curry favor with Trump by awarding the trademark protections faster than is the norm.
That may have just happened. Two of the experts that the AP cites — a director at a Hong Kong intellectual property consultancy and a global trademark attorney at Potomac Law Group in Washington — described the approval process as moving unusually swiftly. It’s more than possible that Trump’s lawyers would notice this as well.
Trump claims that his policies as president won’t be impacted by his business interests since they’re in a trust overseen by his family. But that’s almost a purely symbolic gesture. He still owns the myriad companies that operate under his name, and at the end of the day, he can revoke that trust any time he wishes to. It's hard to imagine that Trump will be able to fully ignore his past — and potentially future — business interests while dealing with foreign governments. Chances are that China won't forget about them either.