What is the connection between a vase of flowers and intellectual property rights (IPR) protection? This question highlights another example of the various challenges facing Chinese businesses in the WTO era. The answer has a lot to do with China's desire to increase flower exports, according to Qian Zhenquan, a reporter for China Flower & Gardening News. Flowers are a boom industry in China, one, that in recent years has had 30 per cent annual growth. That is much higher than the 1 to 2 per cent growth in the Netherlands, long regarded as the world's leading producer. But, according to international practices, even flower growers have to honour patent rights, or face boycotts or penalties. Few Chinese growers, however, want to pay for this form of protection and many just ignore it and illegally grow varieties that were developed by others either at home or overseas. But some Chinese experts have been paying more attention to flower varieties and possible laws, especially if the country wants to expand its markets. If it wants to do so it will have to pay greater attention to flower-related intellectual property rights, experts have told SCMP.com. China has 147,000 hectares planted in flowers, a third of the world's total flower producing area. The mainland's flowers were worth 16.29 billion yuan (about US$1.9 billion) in 2001. Of that, US$280 million came from exports, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Those exports however were minute when compared with the world's US$100-billion annual flower business. Foreign companies have got some bad lessons from dealing with mainlanders and have stopped introducing their best varieties for fear the new varieties could be pirated by the Chinese. As if to underscore this, there were fewer seed suppliers attending the Fifth International Horticultural Exposition in the city of Guangzhou last October than there were at the previous event in Shanghai four years ago, according to media reports. Mr Qian said he had heard of some Dutch companies planning to sue the government of Yunnan province for its laissez-faire policy for local flower growers violating the rules. Yunnan is known as a horticultural paradise and has more than 300 enterprises and 15,000 farmers who produce half of China's cut flowers. Yang Yuyong, the general manager of the Kunming Yang Chinese Rose Co, one of China's leading rose exporters, said, 'People need to learn to abide by the rules of the game, especially after the country has become a WTO member.' Mr Yang's company produced 5 million cut roses in 2001 and 90 per cent went to Hong Kong, Japan, and Southeast Asia. He told SCMP.com that his company paid US$40,000 in patent fees last year to France's Meilland Co. It expects to pay another US$80,000 to the company for 2002, or 80 cents for every rose. Costs went up, but Mr Yang said he thought it was worth it, 'because we get the latest varieties, best techniques, and a world market share by following the rules. The price of good quality flowers makes up for it. 'Going along with international practices is the only way out for exporters to survive, because protecting seed company rights means protecting your own market share,' he said, while emphasising the importance of China developing its own unique varieties. 'Providing the best rose is not our only goal, we want to produce flowers from a Chinese patent.' He Kui, a spokesman of the Yunnan Provincial Flower Industry Association, agreed that the key way for Chinese to secure a position in the world market was to develop unique varieties themselves. If they did not do that, he said, local growers would always be under the control of others. China does have an advantage in the types of plants that only grow here, according to Mr Yang. He told SCMP.com that his company had succeeded in developing a new variety of peony that could be sold in bunches, unlike the potted version. This is China's favourite flower and has sold well in Hong Kong during the Spring Festival. But, he said, that is just the beginning, because they need the direct participation of more growers who know the market well and can see the potential. Mr He said however that it takes years to do research and there are difficulties in a world dominated by European growers. The good news is that China has begun co-operating in this with Israel and China's export-oriented production bases are being supported by state finances.