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Sinica backgrounder: Four things to know about shanzhai, the changing art of the Chinese knockoff

oes shanzhai represent destructive copycatting or is it innovation with Chinese characteristics? Get up to speed for the September 22 episode of the Sinica Podcast with Fan Yang.
1 year ago
Amedeo Tumolillo
Many unauthorized Apple stores can be found in Shenzhen. | Reuters

In China, if the price of a mobile phone from Apple, Nokia or Samsung isn’t to your liking, you can pay much less for a “Hi-Phone” or get yourself a device branded “Nckia” or “Sumsung.” Knockoff gadgets such as these are part of the Chinese phenomenon known as shanzhai, a widespread grassroots movement of Chinese tinkerers, creators and regulation-evading small manufacturers who, depending on your perspective, are engaged in refining, stealing or improving products and concepts from well-known brands, many of them foreign.

Whether perceived as dangerous counterfeiting, outright fraud, economically egalitarian emulation, rebellious refinement or innovation through imitation, the spirit of shanzhai has made an appearance in a long list that includes tennis shoes, masks, pharmaceuticals, Apple stores, Steve Jobs, a Lunar New Year gala that shuns official glitz and a “Pizza Huh” shop.

On September 22, Fan Yang, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, joins Kaiser and Jeremy to discuss shanzhai and her book, Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization. Here are four things worth knowing ahead of their conversation:

1. The United States had its own version of shanzhai.

The leaders of 18th-century America were eager to advance the nation’s economy and quite willing to steal intellectual property from Europe to help make it happen, according to Peter Andreas, writing in Bloomberg View. A 1791 report from Alexander Hamilton encouraged snagging technology from across the ocean through “proper provision and due pains” — a phrase that meant breaking other countries’ laws. The first U.S. Patent Act didn’t allow foreign inventors to get an American patent on something they had already patented in Europe. Thus, an ambitious entrepreneur could smuggle something from abroad back into America and develop it without any legal worries. U.S. copyright law operated similarly. That worked well for Benjamin Franklin, who had some spare time amid making history to republish writings by British authors without permission or payment.

2. China’s ancient and recent past adds some context to understanding shanzhai and copying.

According to the sage Confucius, the best societies were found in the past, and it’s better to use their ideas than try to create new ones, writes Sam Crane in an essay examining plagiarism at Chinese universities. While that mindset is changing, it can help explain why students will answer questions by hunting for previous solutions rather than responding originally, an approach exacerbated by the modern competitive pressures of globalization, according to Crane. Another scholar notes in the Campbell Law Review that shanzhai is a term with origins in ancient Chinese stories about Robin Hood-like bandits and the common people, and one that didn’t begin to take on its modern connotations of copycat culture until as late as 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. He sees shanzhai as something that challenges the notion of Chinese culture being inextricably linked to Confucianism.

3. Shenzhen embodies the concepts of shanzhai.

The southern city of Shenzhen has been called the “Silicon Valley of hardware” for its extraordinary network of factories, entrepreneurs, investors, economic incentives, product customization and pure hustle. With just $300,000, you can turn your design for a smartphone into 10,000 units awaiting sale. Its community of makers, immersed in a rich supply of mix-and-match hardware and infused with a spirit of collaborative creativity, has transformed the process of building gadgets into something closer to the rapid iteration of software development. Many firms that started out in Shenzhen producing goods for foreign companies or making cheap knockoffs are increasingly establishing their own respected brands. The city’s culture of crowdsourced innovation and “mass-production artwork” has deep roots in shanzhai, as one idea quickly turns into another with a few creative tweaks that put inventiveness ahead of certain notions of ownership.

4. Some people really like shanzhai products.

The affordability and rebellious independence of shanzhai knockoffs gives them a “power to the people” energy and accessibility that has proven immensely popular with consumers of limited means around the world. By 2010, the shanzhai ecosystem handled a quarter of the global mobile phone market, producing 200 million devices each year, many of them designed for price-conscious buyers in China, Southeast Asia, South America, the Middle East and Africa. Those firms, buoyed by their success, went on to create innovative products that left behind those that originally inspired them.

Will shanzhai help China change from a country where things are made to one where things are created? According to the United Nations, the country’s transition toward innovation is already well under way, and it’s arguable that so-called piracy has helped that journey with positive results for the world that are often buried beneath alarms about protecting intellectual property. Whatever the case may be, for those trying to figure out the future of innovation, China is a place to watch.

By Amedeo Tumolillo
Amedeo Tumolillo is an editorial consultant with SupChina and award-winning multimedia journalist. He previously worked at The New York Times and Spectrum. Follow him on Twitter at @hellotumo.
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