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Why It's Time For China To Lose Its Copycat Mentality

Article illustrative image Partner logo On the lookout for counterfeit goods in Hong Kong

After five long years of battle in court, Adidas has finally settled with Adivon, a Chinese sportswear company. The latter is to transfer its Chinese trademarks and the triangular logo to the German multinational and will not be allowed to use them again, in any store. 

Meanwhile, another unfinished lawsuit has aroused even more attention. This one is between QiaoDan and Jordan (Nike). The pronunciation of the two names in Chinese is the same. The Chinese sporting goods manufacturer, established in 1998, is still uncompromising in denying it has infringed the trademark of Air Jordan. They argue that their soundalike Chinese name does not constitute the object of a legal right to a name since it's only a common translated surname.

As one Chinese commentator put it, QiaoDan's justification is like ''speaking blindly with eyes wide open," both a lack of respect for the facts and an insult to consumers' intelligence.

This is the essence of China's copycat culture. The Chinese word for this is shanzhai, meaning a mountain stockade of bandits.

Perhaps due to the fact that mainstream culture is somehow less appealing and convincing, the shanzhai culture has a huge market in China. Many aim to seek legitimacy under the banner of shanzhai. It can be said that from the cultural level to the commercial level, both the context and power of the word are both undergoing subtle changes.

What has to be clarified is that the concept of shanzhai has both a cultural and commercial meaning, which are not necessarily the same. In cultural terms, it is meant as an ironic confrontation with the dominant culture by those outside the mainstream. Commercially speaking, shanzhai refers simply to pirating the product designs of famous brands, copying them at very low cost, and taking advantage of others to win - just like Adivon or QiaoDan.

However, to a large extent, the natures of these two copycat behaviors have been confused. As the divide between the rich and the poor creates tension and class stratification, imitation becomes the main way for people to vent their emotions and to express their views. In a certain way, the existence of the copycat provides lubrication and a buffer zone for the society.

Meanwhile, many Chinese companies find business opportunities in this. They find that via brand imitation they can at very low cost circumvent the ethical and legal risks in taking the labor of others.

A lot of these pirate brands do not face criticisms, condemnation or sanction. They disregard others' intellectual property rights. They actually gain widespread sympathy in China. Some Chinese companies even take the opportunity to label themselves as a "national brand" and become a "hero" for taking on foreign commercial forces.

It is questionable whether or not these imitation Chinese brands that beat the drum of serving the people actually serve the interests of our nation and our people. Much too often many of the so-called Chinese national brands are just besmirching the entire nation's reputation for their own benefit.

When a disgraceful lawsuit is finally settled, some copycat brands become the legal winners. Nevertheless, in essence, they are running up an overdraft on the credit of the entire nation around the world. Every Chinese person is paying for this overdraft.

We have all along been claiming we need to improve China's soft power and make China an esteemed country so that it has access to a better business environment internationally. When are we ever going to get the respect we long for if our firms are destroying our credibility?

Quite a number of Chinese sympathizers of the imitators have suggested that copycatting is a good business model. It nurtures innovation and vitality. However, if we look around we know none of the Chinese copycat enterprises ever make it onto any global list of business success stories.

Take the mobile phone as an example. China has provided most of the world's brand-imitating mobile phones, yet it contributes next to nothing to this industry's innovation. China has yet to give birth to a brand in this field that is capable of threatening Samsung or Apple's position. Though we can't attribute all of Chinese firms' lack of creativity just to the copycat culture, it is undoubtedly part of the problem.

When imitation or piracy becomes rife, the bad money drives out the good money. It’s a behavior which is tolerated,or even encouraged. Nothing less than the sustainable and healthy development of China is at stake. 

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