Counterfeit Sneakers and Cultural Creatives in China

From “Inside the Knockoff-Tennis-Shoe Factory” by Nicholas Schmidle in NY Times magazine.

Beijing’s top intellectual-property officials, meanwhile, seem to disagree over what even constitutes counterfeiting. Last year, a debate occurred between the heads of the State Intellectual Property Office and the National Copyright Administration. The dispute revolved around shanzhai, a term that translates literally into “mountain fortress”; in contemporary usage, it connotes counterfeiting that you should take pride in. There are shanzhai iPhones and shanzhai Porsches.

In February 2009, a reporter asked Tian Lipu, the commissioner of the State Intellectual Property Office, whether shanzhai was something to be esteemed. “I am an intellectual-property-rights worker,” Tian curtly replied. “Using other people’s intellectual property without authorization is against the law.” Chinese culture, he added, was not about imitating and plagiarizing others. But one month later, Liu Binjie, from the National Copyright Administration, drew a distinction between shanzhai and counterfeiting. “Shanzhai shows the cultural creativity of the common people,” Liu said. “It fits a market need, and people like it. We have to guide shanzhai culture and regulate it.” Soon after that, the mayor of Shenzhen, an industrial city near Hong Kong, reportedly urged local businessmen to ignore lofty debates about what is and isn’t defined as counterfeiting and to “not worry about the problem of fighting against plagiarism” and “just focus on doing business.”

I am fascinated by cultural attitudes towards knockoffs.