Faked in China
By FAN YANG
Shanzhaiji both fulfill and threaten China’s brand ambitions on the world stage
In the growing genre of Euro-American news stories about China, the threat of unlicensed reproduction is a recurring theme. In July, for instance, the BBC reported that Chinese authorities raided a factory just outside of Beijing that re-assembled used phone parts purchased from abroad before turning them into “new” ones for export. Since January, its assembly lines had churned out 41,000 fake iPhones with an estimated worth of $19 million. Even before Donald Trump, invoking China’s record of “faking” had also become a routine practice among U.S. politicians. Carly Fiorina told a political blog in May that “the Chinese can take a test, but what they can’t do is innovate,” and “that’s why they’re stealing our intellectual property.” This was a line that echoed a charge earlier made by Mitt Romney, though he had the juicy anecdote of a fake Apple Store in Kunming to tell during his televised presidential debate in 2012.
Stories of this kind either frame goods “faked in China” as an economic issue, where unscrupulous business practices sully the intellectual property of hardworking Euro-American brand owners, or attempt to offer a “cultural” explanation—that is, a racist one, holding Chinese culture as incapable of generating meaning on its own. These stories satisfy a Euro-American desire to see a “rising” China itself as somehow fake. But in casting Chinese production as a pretender to Western authenticity, these stories obscure the entanglement of the homegrown shanzhai, or “fake,” industry, and Euro-American dependencies on Chinese industry that gave rise to its complex role in the global capitalist economy.
According to the Chinese-language press, the fake iPhone factory near Beijing was set up by a couple from the Pearl River Delta city of Shenzhen, the first Special Economics Zone established in China and now the world’s major electronics manufacturing hub. Shenzhen is also known as the birthplace of “shanzhai phones”—the local name for fake- or no-brand phones, ranging from “Nokla” to “hiPhone.” The story of the shanzhai phone (or shanzhaiji, 山寨机), like numerous cultural artifacts “faked in China,” is as much about China as it is about contemporary globalization. And while “shanzhai” is not a brand name per se, the way it operates is through analogy with corporate brands. It would not be much of an exaggeration to call the clustered industry of shanzhaiji a conglomerate operating without a unified bureaucratic structure.
Local media coverage of shanzhai phones in the early 2000s seldom neglected to mention that the word—made up of the characters “shān” (山, i.e. “mountain”) and “zhài” (寨, i.e. “fortress”)—connotes a Robin Hood-esque story of bandits defying powerful entities. In the people’s memory, peasants rose up in arms against despotic rules by occupying a mountain to become kings themselves. Today, this pre-modern sensibility complements the idea that shanzhai adopts the “villages surrounding the city” strategy, recalling the key role of the peasantry during the Maoist revolution. But the shanzhai defiance of despotic powers may also be understood as operating against the Chinese state or the globalizing intellectual property rights regime to which the state is so ready to conform. The People’s Republic often responds to shanzhai’s market success by cracking down on fake goods in spectacular raids, as a way to declare its will to strengthen the nation’s intellectual property law enforcement.