Fake it until you make it: Post-Truth Products

By Tom Parker

Last Wednesday marked World Consumer Rights Day (国际消费者权益日), an international observance that is not widely recognised in Australia but is celebrated in China as 3.15 (三幺五) for the date it falls in March.  

The day also has its own CCTV show conveniently named ‘315’ that names and shames domestic and international brands in a tabloid format that trades on customer complaints, malfunctions and misleading marketing. Perceived as a news breaker, the 315 program has claimed high profile corporate scalps such as Apple, McDonald’s, and Jaguar Land Rover, who were forced to recall more than 36,000 (SUVs) after complaints over gearboxes were aired in the 2015. 

The increased focus on consumer protection in a market socialist country reflects the nation’s current dependence on commerce for social harmony. It is a far cry from the early days of economic reform in the 1990s when most complaints were met with mei ban fa (没办法), meaning ‘there is no choice’.  It’s the Chinese expression of ‘get lost because this problem can’t be solved and you won’t win” or if said with menace, the Angel’s iconic refrain ‘No Way, Get F#%ked, F#%k Off!’

The groundswell of consumer protection is matched by significant changes in China’s Consumer Rights Law in 2014 that increased penalties for fraud and false advertising and in the case of counterfeiting shifts the onus of proof away from the consumer to the retailer to prove their innocence for 6 months after sale. 

In 2015, Paris-based Kering SA, owners of luxury brands Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent sued  Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba for promoting the sale of counterfeit goods. A US judge threw out the case but in China, Alibaba, whose domestic e-commerce Taobao platform has been blacklisted by the US Office of the Trade Representative as a notorious market for knock offs, would need to prove their innocence.

Earlier this month, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, in a well timed post on Weibo during the annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, suggested that China’s lawmakers should solve the current ambiguous counterfeiting laws with stiffer laws, enforcement and penalties. 

“There is a lot of bark around stopping counterfeits, but no bite,” Ma said in calling for the government to attack counterfeiters with a coordinated campaign as they did with the nation’s drink drivers. 

But can Jack Ma teach an old dog new tricks? The question of ‘authenticity’ in China has a very unique cultural background that can be difficult to translate or explain in a Western context. 

In the West, authenticity lies in originality of an idea, concept, product or place. It is deeply rooted in the combination of history and aesthetics that places an innate value system on authorship. Traditional Chinese culture believed everything has a precedent but was open to reproduction and replication with the value not in the event, space or creation but in the concept. 

The Forbidden City in Beijing is a classic example of China’s approach to authenticity. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the past 500 years in line with dynastic change, but its central symbolic sense of place as the ‘mandate of heaven’ remains untouched. While international tourists bemoan recent coats of paints, hoping to see the buildings as they were left by the Last Emperor, locals understand that the renovations do not diminish the authenticity of this important imperial relic.
More recently, China like Taobao, has been seen as the site of the counterfeit, the illegitimate and the inauthentic where Western values of ‘authenticity’ are being challenged by China’s perceived lack of care and respect for originality. This sense of difference is amplified through representations of the ‘other’ that reveal perceived deception and cunning that run counter to Western traits of analysis and objective evaluation. 

Copycat culture in China has been made even more ambiguous by the official acceptance of shan zhai (山寨) or counterfeit chic. Literally meaning ‘mountain stronghold’ this term was appropriated from Cantonese, where it was used to refer to low-quality homemade products that were produced in remote areas of Hong Kong during the 1950s away from the long arm of the law. This concept of pirate enterprises was transferred to entrepreneurial Shenzhen industrialists, who produced low cost versions of mobile phones in the early 2000s. 

At the end of 2008, CCTV legitimised the concept of shan zhai culture as the first mainstream mention of this disruptive practice. As Callum Smith notes in his excellent essay for The China Story, shan zai culture has produced an estimated 150 million handsets with a street value of USD$40 billion and sustaining 200,000 jobs.
Smith argues that these handsets with clumsy but subtle variations on brand names, such as ‘NOKLA’ instead of Nokia and ‘Samsang’ instead of Samsung, have played a pivotal role in accelerating the number of mobile phone subscriptions in China, which rose from 270 million in 2003 to 1.2 billion in 2013. The affordability created access to an aspirational lifestyle that may explain why the government has not yet cracked down on counterfeits as it provides a cheap policy solution for the Construction of a Harmonious Society (构建和谐社会).                     

The prevalence of shan zhai also allows for a hierarchy of consumption and social division through ‘authenticity’ of branding making the original more valuable and desirable. As a result Taobao becomes the delivery method to buy and sell this inventive counter-culture that has created a shadow class of imitations from consumer electronics, food, cigarettes, and even U.S. military hardware, to Apple and IKEA products. 

The protection of consumer rights against false advertising and shaming international brands for false claims while shan zhai counterfeiters are celebrated as corporate Robin Hoods means that China is a multi-layered market that requires deep understanding to navigate and succeed. 

Subscribe to China Insiders

* indicates required