Why are the Chinese so devoted to knockoffs?

That’s the subject of this interesting article in the International Herald Tribune. The article begins with a crazy-sounding anecdote — apparently, a property developer in southern China built a nearly-exact copy of the picturesque town square of Hallstatt, Austria. You can see the Chinese knockoff in the picture at left — although the Austrian brass band is real. The question the article grapples with is the obvious one — why would anyone want to do this?  And what lies underneath the ubiquity of knockoffs in China?

The article advances a few theories. One is cultural — Chinese tradition holds that copying is a way of showing respect for artistic, literary, or technological mastery.  There’s a famous and excellent book by William Alford that advances this thesis (among others): To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization. A second is linguistic — the task of memorizing the huge array of pictographic characters necessary to become literate in Chinese requires a massive amount of rote copying of those characters, and early immersion in this activity helps create a national proclivity for copying. That, at least to me, sounds like a “just so” story — seemingly commonsensical, but a bit too tidy and incapable of proof.

In any event, the IHT article engages in a bit of civilized China-bashing, including some sniffiness about China’s inability thus far to knock off the one Western innovation that the U.S. and its allies would dearly like to see copied — democracy. But the article also misses a broader point. The Chinese are avid knockoff artists.  But they are also increasingly innovative.  How to square these two trends?  Well, shanzhai may be part of the answer.  The Chinese mode of innovation may turn out to be different from ours, but just as valuable. It may be that China emerges as a nation of world-class tweakers — i.e., focusing on innovations that build on others’ creativity. As we discuss in The Knockoff Economy, this sort of innovation is often disparaged, or ignored. But it’s a vital ingredient in a thriving creative economy. And China may be the next hotbed.

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