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“Shanzhai” Culture refers to a socio-economic phenomenon that has developed over the years in China. Boeing indicates that the word Shanzhai is used to describe criminals, or bandits, who perform illegal operations as a form of protest against corrupted authorities.1 The literal meaning of the word implies a “small mountain village”. Cantonese slang serves as a source for Shanzhai word that refers to a particular type of a product.
From a geographical standpoint, many Shanzhai manufacturers came from Shenzhen, the Guangzhou province. Nowadays, Shanzhai culture is a complex socio-economic and cultural phenomenon, standing out among other Chinese cities and economic landmarks. The controversy of Shanzhai is tied to the copycat culture that is increasingly popular. We will argue that the phenomenon of Shanzhai culture is not only a culture of imitation but also of innovation and economic balance.
Copycat Culture and Intellectual Property
The culture of imitation has become a hallmark of Shanzhai culture, as well as a rather controversial subject nowadays. Yang emphasizes that the world has long since stopped being surprised at the growing number of copycat products.2 What is curious, however, is that a whole culture has developed around the imitation products. Yang argues that it is far more significant than a mere economic tendency to copycat famous brands for domestic market distribution.
The author claims that Shanzhai culture has become an instrument of ideological character for the government to create a national brand. 3 The low prices of Shanzhai copycat products are intertwined with the dubious treatment of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), tax legislation, and many other international laws concerning intellectual property. Raustiala and Sprigman point out that official laws regulating intellectual property rights are rather strong in China, but there is a lack of efficient enforcement instruments.4
The authors indicate that one of the aspects of Shanzhai that the Western countries find the most surprising is the willingness and even eagerness of the government to celebrate the imitation culture. According to Raustiala and Sprigman, Chinese cities are abundant in buildings with copied architectural design, most often of European architectural sites.5
The presence of multinational giant brands has helped shape Shanzhai culture as well. More often than not, subcontractors with extensive experience in working in global corporations enter the Shanzhai economy and share their operational skills and knowledge. Yang indicates the role of migrants and young people in the popularization of the copycat brands. 6 The desire to keep up with fashion trends coupled with low- or middle-income creates a substantial demand for imitation products (see Photo 17 and 28).
Shenzhen Speed is one of the most famous slogans of Shenzhen’s economic culture. 9 The term refers to an unprecedented, albeit already challenged, the rapid economic growth rate of Shenzhen. The tendency to develop more methods of market domination is the driving force of Shanzhai culture. The methods employed can be considered dubious, as they involve explicitly illegal imitation of products that sometimes are not even launched yet. Horwitz provides an example of the latter in an article, where he describes the case of an Israeli businessman, Yekutiel Sherman, who learned about Shanzhai companies selling a selfie stick with his design on Ali Express before the completion of his Kickstarter funding project. 10
The author points out that while many critics attribute the imitation tendency to the Chinese government’s efforts to stifle creativity and promote mere multiplication, it is far more likely that such incidents occur due to the spread of Shanzhai culture.
Overall, it is evident that the Shanzhai phenomenon is challenging the global market, as well as defying our modern notions of intellectual property. Is it clear which ideas can be replicated, and which should be left alone out of respect for the author?11 Shanzhai culture creates a stimulus for the technology industry to develop in a new direction. Nowadays, it is not enough to come up with an idea of a product that is fairly simple and has a clear and easy manufacturing process. Copycatting creates a necessity to develop innovative manufacturing technologies that are not so easy to understand and easily repeated. 12 This is what happened with Yekutiel Sherman and his selfie stick. Shanzhai culture introduces a new reality that modern businesses are forced to face.
Nowadays, Shanzhai culture is undoubtedly a controversial subject. Tse, Ma, and Huang point out that copycat manufacturers often start with an imitation production and gradually transform into companies with their intellectual property.13 The authors explore the significance of Shanzhai economic culture, as well as its impact on the global market. To shed further light on the controversial aspects of Shanzhai, it is necessary to characterize the standpoints of its opponents, as well as its supporters.
Proponents of Shanzhai culture believe that it offers a wide range of benefits for the market. Copycat products are usually sold at a lower price, which is rather convenient for the current financial situation.14 Moreover, copycatting the products manufactured by the market leaders helps undermine the monopoly the latter impose.
Opponents of Shanzai culture emphasize its adverse impact on the economy, as it floods the market with products of dubious quality. Some critics believe Shanzhai products have a negative influence on consumers, as they encourage a certain degree of ignorance and damage creativity.
However, more often than not, substandard quality reports are exaggerated. After all, Shanzhai products would not have gained such overwhelming popularity and would not have grown in demand if the product quality had been unsatisfactory. It might be lower than the quality of the most famous brands, but that does not diminish its basic value.
All in all, the negative impact of Shanzhai culture has not been definitively established. There are advantages and drawbacks to the development of copycatting. However, Shanghai will have a significant impact on the way we understand intellectual property rights, as well as on the way various types of businesses function in the future. The innovative aspect of Shanzhai is clear when considering how it prompts modern enterprises to rethink their manufacturing and marketing strategies. Perhaps Shanzhai culture constitutes a fundamental challenge for the global market to move forward and develop innovative ways to conduct business.
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Boeing, Philipp. “Shanzhai: Dimensions of a Chinese Phenomenon.” China Business & Research 001, № 1 (2009): 1-3.
Caveman, Chuck Coker. “dolcebanana.” Digital Image. Sparksheet. 2012. Web.
Caveman, Chuck Coker. “shanzai2.” Digital image. Sparksheet. 2012. Web.
Horwitz, Josh. “Your Brilliant Kickstarter Idea Could Be On Sale in China Before You’ve Even Finished Funding It.” 2016. Web.
Raustiala, Kal, and Chris Sprigman. “Shanzhai Skyscrapers.” Web.
Tse, Edward, Kevin Ma, Yu Huang. “Shanzhai: A Chinese Phenomenon.” Web.
Yang, Fan. “From Bandit Cell Phones to Branding the Nation: Three Moments of Shanzhai in WTO-era China” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 24, № 3 (2016): 589-619.
Yang, Fan. “Temporality and Shenzhen Urbanism in the Era of ‘China Dreams’,” Verge: Studies in Global Asias (accepted for publication, slated for publication in 2017).
- Boeing, Philipp. “Shanzhai: Dimensions of a Chinese Phenomenon.” China Business & Research 001, № 1 (2009): p. 1.
- Yang, Fan. “From Bandit Cell Phones to Branding the Nation: Three Moments of Shanzhai in WTO-era China” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 24, № 3 (2016): p. 590.
- Ibid., p. 593.
- Raustiala, Kal, and Chris Sprigman. “Shanzhai Skyscrapers.” par. 1.
- Ibid., par. 4
- Ibid., p. 597.
- Caveman, Chuck Coker. “shanzai2.” Digital image. Sparksheet. 2012.
- Caveman, Chuck Coker. “dolcebanana.” Digital Image. Sparksheet. 2012.
- Yang, Fan. “Temporality and Shenzhen Urbanism in the Era of ‘China Dreams’,” Verge: Studies in Global Asias, p. 4.
- Horwitz, Josh. “Your Brilliant Kickstarter Idea Could Be On Sale in China Before You’ve Even Finished Funding It.”, par. 3.
- Ibid., par. 21.
- Ibid., par. 24.
- Tse, Edward, Kevin Ma, Yu Huang. “Shanzhai: A Chinese Phenomenon.”, p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 5.