Is Counterfeiting a Part of Chinese Culture?

2007/8/1Harry Yang, China IP,[Trademark]

Did counterfeit goods offend you today? After you took a drink of the beverage you bought and immediately sensed the difference, you looked closely at the bottle and found that the brand was not "脉动", but rather "脉劫"; when you took a taste of the instant noodles with the "康师傅" brand name, you tasted adifferent flavor, and then you discovered that it was the "康帅博" instant noodle brand. Did you feel extremely angry, or just a sense of resignation?

In recent years, China has gradually strengthened its crackdown on the counterfeiting of trademarks, and one piece of ironclad proof is that the act of completely counterfeiting trademarks is decreasing in the markets. Instead, the act of imitating famous trademarks is increasingly "flourishing." Progress has been made in the crackdown on counterfeit goods, but the act of fraudulent imitation has resurfaced.

Fraudulent imitations are usually perfectly made. They make use of the external similarity, a disguised combination of trademarks, and the similarity of graphic designs and colors to mix the fake with the genuine. Imitation is relatively outstanding in the areas of clothing, snacks and daily necessities. When buying these small commodities, consumers are usually not careful enough to distinguish them. Therefore, slight differences in the trademarks will be sufficient to confuse consumers.

The means of fraudulent imitation tend to be rather direct, and make people feel both amused and annoyed as if one farce after another is put on the stage. For instance, when clothes, shoes and hats with famous brands are fraudulently imitated, especially some sportswear such as Adidas, PUMA, and NIKE; they also copy their styles and appearances and only make slight changes to the trademarks. Subsequently, as if by magic, adidas changes itself into adidos, adadas, avivas, abibas, asidad, and PUMA becomes PAMA, FUMA, and PUNK, while NIKE changes into HIKE, LIKE, MIKE, and NKIE. Not only international brands are imitated; the fate of domestic brands is also sealed. The conduct of imitating the brands of daily commodities has become a common occurrence. For example, the aforementioned "脉动" and "脉劫", "康师傅" and "康帅博" are playing games with Chinese characters. Some of them are even more "amusing": washing powder with the brand of "雕" is split into the brand "周住", the brand "汰渍" is changed into the brand "汰洁"; the liquor "五粮液" is changed into "丑粮液"; the shampoo "沙宣" is changed into "沙宜", and "飘柔" into"瓢柔". The imitation of the words and graphic designs is so subtle that it is very hard to distinguish them. No wonder the BBS (bulletin board system) articles on the internet "praise" such fraudulent imitation as "Chinese alien wisdom." In order to avoid risks, some people even put a complete collection of imitated trademarks on the internet and remind consumers to pay attention to the counterfeits when buying similar kinds of goods.
Counterfeit clothing is usually found in small clothing markets and roadside stands, and is sold in the zones joining towns and villages, and in the medium-sized and small cities, whereas small counterfeit commodities are usually sold in places with a large transient population such as train stations and tourist attractions. Consumers who purchase them discover they have been cheated only after they use or taste the products, and they usually accept the bad fortune without complaint, as it is unlikely that they will return and confront the vendors. The counterfeiters have such a strong grip on consumers, and thus counterfeiting conduct has become increasingly intense.

As to the reasons for this prevalent counterfeiting, some of the opinions from foreign countries consider counterfeiting to be a part of Chinese culture. In an article entitled "The Cultural Origin of Chinese Counterfeit Products" published by the Voice of Germany (Deutsche Welle), the Secretary-General of the Germany-China Economic Association (Deutsch-Chinesiswche Wirtschaftsvereinigung E. V.) thinks that there is a cultural origin as to why the Chinese counterfeit. He claims that because traditional Chinese Confucian education requires reciting and copying, students take a great man (a scholar, a poet, or a philosopher) as a role model, appreciate the ideas of the forefather and then retell them. It is this Chinese culture that determines the practice of following the example of others, and imitating others is a kind of honor in China.

It is inappropriate to confuse in a casual way the imitation of role models with the conduct of counterfeiting goods. Admittedly, China has a culture that acclaims imitating role models, but this kind of imitation expects individuals to imitate others on the basis of their own capabilities whereas counterfeiting is a kind of imitation mixing the false with the genuine. Under the background of Chinese culture, the conduct of imitating role models might be a kind of honor, but the conduct of counterfeiting runs counter to the value of social honesty, and I believe that counterfeiters do not enjoy honor under any cultural background. Usually the conduct of imitation can be done in the open whereas the conduct of counterfeiting is performed in secret.

When it comes to culture, it is natural to understand the core of a given culture. The core of a culture is the social consciousness and society's values. A culture that runs counter to social values cannot become a mainstream culture. There is no denying that counterfeiting as a kind of social phenomenon widely exists in China. Perhaps judging from culture in the broadest sense, counterfeiting represents a kind of culture. But it is only an abnormally developed cultural phenomenon and it cannot be included in the mainstream culture of China.

The development of culture also possesses a feature of continuity and historical succession. A culture that goes against the social consciousness and values can only exist temporarily and cannot become inheritable Chinese national culture.
There are many reasons to explain why the counterfeiting phenomenon is prevalent in China. The most fundamental reason is the lack of honesty in the entire community. Lack of honesty is a very complicated problem. It might be caused by a loss of the faith, the immaturity of the market economy, or imperfect supervision mechanisms. I personally think that what is also important is that there appears to be a break in the succession of Chinese culture in the course of social transition, and the moral ideas of national traditions of China are not handed down naturally to the contemporary citizens. In the thousands of years of traditional Chinese culture, honesty has been one of the fundamental moral standards advocated by the Confucians.

Moreover, honesty has gradually developed into a rule of behavior that must be followed by businessmen. As for Chinese businessmen in modern times, honesty has been considered the only road to success. In modern times, the Anhui, Shanxi, and Zhejiang businessmen, as well as such time-honored brands as Tong Ren Tang and Liu Bi Ju, all lay the foundation of their own century's old-enterprises relying on their honesty. Inside the drug stores of Tong Ren Tang, the No. 1 brand of Chinese herbal medicine that was developed from a family herbal medicine shop, an antithetical couplet still remains there: "not saving even trivial manual work, not reducing very costly material." This is an indication of the cultural concept of business honesty.

The Shanxi businessmen, who once set up the financial and trade center of the country, relied also on the word "honesty". It is a pity that these precious business experiences and successes have fallen into oblivion during the process of the historical transition to modern times in China. Under circumstances lacking the restraints of traditional moral principles, opening up the market economy shall naturally lead to counterfeiting conduct. 

It is obvious that the prevalence of counterfeiting is not due to cultural origins, but because of the lack of traditional culture. Therefore, putting an end to counterfeiting cannot be achieved only through the strengthening of law enforcement and supervision. Strength may be sought from historical culture. The essence of a solution is to reestablish the social values and to restore the restraints of the traditional moral concept of honesty.

Furthermore, a solution to the problem cannot be accomplished by action alone. It requires a reform process, and it is an essential cost that the entire society has to bear. Apart from the succession of the pith and marrow of traditional Chinese culture, international communication and cooperation are also needed to blend different cultures and civilizations so as to promote a new prosperous Chinese culture.

The blending of cultures needs mutual understanding. To understand the culture of China requires deeply delving into each of the aspects of this society in order to have an authentic perception, which not only needs to be clear about its present but also needs to know its past. Some foreigners' understanding of China remains distorted by lopsided images, although they consider themselves to be China experts. They arrive at an inappropriate judgment and convey inaccurate information. Their actions ought to be considered irresponsible. To denounce Chinese culture as a counterfeiting culture can only intensify national resentment. It is not a rational attitude for the solution of the problem.

                                                                                             (Translated by Ma Jing)



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