Felix Salmon linked to this Foreign Affairs article by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman about the economic benefits of Chinese piracy. As Salmon notes, the upshot of the article is that the U.S. should stop wasting its time trying to get China to respect intellectual property restrictions, because Chinese knockoffs represent little in the way of lost sales and actually serve as innovation, counter to the belief that “real” innovation must be incentivized through the guarantee of long-term rents. Under the Chinese model, the rentiers lose and consumers benefit from the knockoffs — seen less as inferior copies and more as ingenious improvements, a shift marked by the changing connotation of the Chinese word shanzhai:
As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, “Once a term used to suggest something cheap or inferior, shanzhai now suggests to many a certain Chinese cleverness and ingenuity.” Indeed, Beijing seems to believe that shanzhai is something to cultivate. In 2009, an official from China’s National Copyright Administration declared that “shanzhai shows the cultural creativity of the common people.” He added, “It fits a market need and people like it.”
Imitation is a creative act of cultural signaling; it produces social value in and of itself. Shanzhai, “the cultural creativity of the common people,” seems like it could be applied more broadly to all sorts of creative immaterial labor being performed by consumers, an alternative label for what gets called “curation” or “remix culture” when it’s not called piracy or theft. Shanzhai seems like it could mark the point at which imitation transcends itself and becomes a form of originality.
American culture is perhaps too saturated with the ideology of intellectual property to properly acknowledge and herald that moment; instead artists are supposed to want to disavow the work they copy or engage in some Oedipal struggle with their inspirations, as Harold Bloom argued in The Anxiety of Influence. It’s fascinating to imagine a culture in which remixing occurs without the overhang of anxiety, where doing détournements is not a minor act of rebellion but a mode of patriotism.
Celebrating the straitened improvisation of shanzhai, which originally meant “bandit stronghold,” might seem reminiscent of those efforts to dignify relative poverty with hipster cachet — to think it’s cool to find ingenious ways to do more with less. Soul food is so delicious, and such humble ingredients! What innovative architecture and use of found materials in that favela! But shanzhai subtracts authenticity from that patronizing and nostalgic view of improvisatory ingenuity. Shanzhai is an ethic of unabashed appropriation that is openly parasitical. It doesn’t pretend to compensate those at the margins of globalization’s consumer markets by lionizing their exemption from the soulless phoniness of mass-produced conveniences. Instead it highlights their ambivalent inescapable relation to consumerism.
Shanzhai is celebrated by management consultants for its daring disruptiveness, as in this Booz and Co. report. Raustiala and Sprigman argue that shanzhai is a way to counter inequality by making cheap goods seem as satisfying as what they are copying. “Chinese authorities hope that the relative freedom to copy might help ease or at least mask the yawning economic divide in China.” But they also note that at the same time, shanzhai enhances the aura of the copied originals, serving as a form of advertisement for the allure of the “genuine” items.
Copies of Western products, as a result, do not necessarily represent lost sales. Instead, they often serve as effective advertisements for the originals: gateway products that, in the long run, might spur demand for the real thing as China’s burgeoning middle class grows … Although shanzhai products are celebrated, those Chinese who can buy the original products generally do.
It would be great if counterfeit chic damaged the integrity of the brands it copied — if IP piracy and détournement worked as an attack on consumer capitalism — but it doesn’t. It just strengthens the hold of chic over the consumer imagination. You can’t travesty your way to revolution.
Shanzhai strengthens the status hierarchies articulated by possession of “real” luxury goods and makes those goods more desirable. It makes “the genuine” seem even more rarefied by comparison. To do some shanzhai on Baudrillard, a surfeit of fakes makes for hypergenuineness.
Status, it turns out, is an experiential good that cannot be knocked off or mass-produced. No matter how democratizing in principal, consumerism relies on pre-existing inequalities to continually resuscitate demand and secure profit; it rearticulates those status disparities in the process of remedying material want for more of the population. Consumerism addresses material deprivation by exacerbating status imbalances. This is the story of capitalist development in a nutshell.
Shanzhai is not antagonistic to consumerism anymore than Tumblr “curation” and memification of pop culture are antagonistic to the culture industry. It is also not antagonistic to a classed society, the way communism was once supposed to be. The bandit stronghold is full of copycat outlaws hoping to become legitimate.