PRC & IP: Imitation, Flattery, Copycat Culture

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 2/16/2014 09:32:00 AM
There's an interesting article from the Commonwealth publication Global: The International Briefing which goes into that age-old question of why the Chinese are not especially innovative despite having the world's second-largest economy. In short, why are there no globally-recognized Chinese brands? Also, why are many indigenous Chinese products and services me-too efforts without any real distinction from what everyone else makes?

These two questions have spawned alarm about Chinese development. First, there is little value-added in churning out commodities, possibly ensuring that Western concerns will continue to dominate in terms of where the real money is made--branding, design, and marketing. Second, China may be making itself vulnerable to legal challenges on the intellectual property front. Anyway, to the oft-cited socio-cultural roots of imitation:
China’s existence is premised on these calculated approaches to life. To succeed in public life in the past, the state originated a civil society exam-based system conducted at every level of the Chinese administrative hierarchy – after all, the highest civil status below the emperor was often the ‘grand tutor’ – and if these rigid examinations were passed at a series of levels, then the student was qualified to rise up the imperial chain. Most of these tests – just like the Chinese language itself – are premised on memorising, uniformity and repetition. With such foundation stones laid to honour the art of duplication, it is hardly surprising that it has been hardwired into the social system.

This is reinforced by the traditional master-student relationship within schools and universities where, all too often, copying is the default position. Students at university will regularly copy out essays from the internet and present them, uncited, in all innocence. In their view, there is nothing wrong with plagiarising the ‘correct answer’ from a respected expert, instead of spending time trying to give their interpretation of the answer that could be wrong. Seen through Chinese eyes, copying is not only sensible, but it is a symbol of respect for authority and, importantly, it is a way of passing the test.
There is thus an innate conservatism in how the young are taught. Take, for instance, architecture:
China’s social structures, policies and perceptions are engineered, as far as possible, so that new ideas do not rock the boat – at least, that they do not undermine the leadership position of the party. Unsurprisingly, the education industry lays the ground rules by rigidly teaching children to copy, to repeat, to trace.

School students, for example, learn an impressive set of artistic skills, but after years of study each student has merely learned to draw the same object for days and weeks until they ‘succeed’ in the acceptable portrayal of the object. They have been taught to draw particular objects – and only these objects – in a ‘correct’ way. For them, the aim is to ‘get it right’ rather than ‘have a go’. As a result, the system is designed to reinforce a process of engaging people to hone visual memory and regurgitation: it is but a short step to architects copying alluring Western projects.
It's a spin on the idea that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but IP laws unfortunately mean that those being copied do not necessarily see this as a compliment.There is hope, though: since the state is omnipresent in Chinese life, there is probably no better way to begin recognizing innovation than through administrative fiat:
It was fewer than ten years ago that China changed the country’s constitution to enshrine private property rights. Nowadays, the China Daily newspaper even has an IP channel that provides comprehensive reports on current and future trends in IP development in China. As part of this professionalised approach to patent rights, for instance, anyone – from a foreign company or an individual – who contributes to a patented invention that is made or completed in China is eligible for the Chinese government inventor reward and remuneration for abuse of these property rights. There has been a spate of legal cases recently, such as the defendant in Suzhou who was sentenced to a year in prison and a US$12,000 fine for counterfeiting Louis Vuitton and Gucci trademarks. But nobody is stealing too many Chinese design secrets… yet. 
There are promising signs in other sectors. For instance, Chinese smartphone brands are doing well at home even against the likes of Apple and Samsung, and it is probably a matter of time that they will tackle foreign markets too with designs that are value precisely because they are Chinese-designed.