“Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters or take any from you.” — Blackbeard
A few years ago, I dropped off a Christmas gift – a small jar of Vermont maple syrup – to a friend in the States. A day or two later I received a thank you note via email. “What a great gift,” it said. “I was so happy to see syrup! I thought it would be something from China.”
I call this the gift-from-China conundrum. Made in China is synonymous with inferior quality and fake. Bringing back a present from China often feels like re-gifting an ugly vase, or worse, putting a bow on a pair of stinky old socks. Even my favorite go-to gifts, tea and silk, don’t enthrall back in the States.
To be honest, there is a lot of junk in China, and much of it is certainly counterfeit. Sixty percent of the world’s fakes originate in China. By some estimates, Chinese piracy of American goods costs the U.S. a half trillion dollars a year. The most egregious thing China is accused of stealing these days is intellectual property, and although some have argued China’s thievery is diminishing, a Wisconsin court recently found the Chinese company Sinovel guilty of destroying an American company by stealing its wind turbine technology. It should be no surprise to learn that the country most affected by piracy is the U.S. The country least affected is China.
Intellectual property theft can feel abstract to many Americans, but brand name fakes are something everyone understands. Brand fakes are still hot property in Shanghai, a city that loves conspicuous consumption, and the abundant fake markets are so popular, guides offer day trips for browsing tourists. (Not that I’d ever take a visitor to a fake market).
I can’t speak for Beijing, but our Shanghai fake markets get props for metaphorical consistency – the biggest ones are located deep underground – massive labyrinthine malls under People’s Square and the Science and Technology Museum. High-quality fakes, (seems like a paradox, I know), are all the rage. Even Jack Ma insists fakes are of better quality than the real deal. At the fake markets, you can bring your favorite shirt or winter coat and have an exact copy (or ten) made. You can schedule an eye exam and buy glasses or polarized prescription sunglasses with designer frames for $30. (Not that we’d ever do something like that).
Sham Apple logos are so pervasive there are two different storefronts sporting them within a half block of our apartment.
Nike, Adidas, Gucci, Coach, Uggs: The logos are everywhere. The Chinese purveyors of hilarious knock-offs that riff on well-known logos – Rolexe anyone – are referred to as shanzhai, which translated means mountain fortress; in other words, it’s an invincible market. The efficiency with which China rips off other people’s ideas is mind-blowing. Just ask Yekutiel Sherman whose selfie-stick iPhone case idea was stolen before he wrapped up a crowd-funding campaign.
Last week, China made the news by officially banning the bible from Taobao, probably one of the few places a bible was actually available in China. Never fear bible lovers, I suspect you can pick up an illegal pdf copy from a chap I know. I recently learned that pirated pdf copies of Western books are available from a shady guy on WeChat who runs what he calls . . . A Book Store. An illegal copy of a Western book will set you back the equivalent of one U.S. dollar. It’s especially laughable that the bible was removed from Taobao, Alibaba’s version of Amazon, (everyone in China shops on Taobao). The website is widely considered one of the largest online purveyors of fake goods in the world. (Not that we’d ever buy stock in Alibaba).
The transcendence of Chinese piracy is not surprising. It’s impossible to live in China without a Chinese citizen informing you at some point in your tenure that the most successful pirate in history was a 19thcentury Chinese woman. If you grew up fabricating hooks for hands and dressing like Blackbeard on Halloween, aye matie, historical revisionism is about to squash your childhood fantasies.
Chin Shih, a 19thcentury Qing dynasty woman was the most prosperous pirate in history, not Blackbeard. After taking over from her dead husband (who was also a pirate) she commanded an estimated 1,800 junks with somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 pirates under her management. It’s been pointed out that her criminal organization was comparable in size to Exxon Mobil. One of her notorious rules was that female captives should not to be raped – chalk one up for an early #metoo moment. The penalty for breaking this rule was beheading, of course. She was a pirate after all.
At this point in our China tenure, I’ve accepted that friends and family don’t want gifts from the PRC; China’s reputation as a counterfeiter is as firmly cemented in the global consciousness as a mouthful of qīng tuán. But if you live in China, frankly, you have to accept an uneasy relationship with piracy. It’s like a daily personal morality play running in a continuous loop. Fakes are so embedded in life, and so integral to the Chinese market economy, that “fake” is not even a pejorative term here.
As expats, we affirmed our inevitable moral decline the day we learned our Chinese DVD player only plays pirated DVDs and not the perfectly legal DVDs we brought from the U.S. One of the first sentences we heard when we arrived was: “The DVD store has everything, and it’s your only option.” Indeed, this year we watched Call Me By Your Name long before it was out on streaming services in the States. I think it was still in theaters. The proprietary message scrolling across the top of our screen suggests someone in Hollywood, not just China, is making a killing.
Of course, there are other options. Don’t buy illegal DVDs, for one. (Moral equivalency: Isn’t Hollywood the greatest exporter of U.S. soft power? How else will that reach China?) We could rely solely on our paid Netflix account. Except, oops. We’re breaking international licensing agreements every time we log in. Technically we are breaking Chinese law and more licensing agreements by using our VPN to access Netflix. The effort it takes to avoid pirated goods in China isn’t worth the hours and emotional energy extracted from our lives. Someone will need a pair of glasses in China, and the glasses market is the place to buy them. Isn’t imitation the highest form of flattery?
Research on the ethical consequences of buying pirated goods has not made me feel better about my utilitarian arguments. (Yet, I find Utilitarianism one of the best ways to cope with certain aspects of life in China). In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, which has sat mostly unread on my bookshelf for the past three years, Dan Ariely offers up evidence that buying counterfeit items makes a person more likely to cheat broadly, to engage in a wide spectrum of cheating behaviors. It’s been dubbed the ‘What the Hell Effect;’ otherwise known as the ‘moral cost’ of buying fake goods, or the moral cost of making any bad decision, really.
Of course, Airely’s theory can tentatively explain the intractable phenomenon of pirating and cheating in China. Many people have argued that the Chinese don’t view cheating (particularly academic cheating) as cheating, thanks to a collective (sharing) mindset. But as someone with a long-term residence permit in my passport, I’m calling BS on that idea. There is also, in China, a deep reliance on getting to desired outcomes by going around barriers (the PRC government erects so many of them). At any rate, Airely is correct. Once you’ve purchased your first illegal DVD, it’s not long before you’ve alighted upon a venal slippery slope that starts with a massive DVD collection and ends with a suitcase full of fake North Face jackets and backpacks. Not that I would buy a (really good) fake North Face jacket.
It’s not an understatement to say we’re going to hell in a handbasket here.
Alas, piracy in China is propped up by a government that bans or unreasonably taxes the importation of Western goods, while allowing stores to sell pirated versions with impunity. Forbes writer Kenneth Repoza links Chinese piracy to a lack of innovation. His idea is that innovation tends to be individualistic, and without privacy laws, China won’t be able to protect its individual innovators, so there’s no incentive to innovate. It’s a fine theory, but it ignores the willingness of the Chinese government to take on the role of ‘innovator for the people’.
Pirates have always been known for thievery and plunder. If Donald Trump has gotten one thing right – and it is excruciating to write those words – it’s that the U.S. has been too soft on Chinese piracy. There are certainly better, tactful, and more strategic ways to address the problem than an all-out trade war. But until then, we who live in China are left with our guilty sighs of ‘what the hell.’