Fake as Folk

By Allen Young

Review of Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization by Fan Yang

Not long ago, on a visit to the Xingyoucheng mall by Shanghai Stadium, I happened upon a display of sneakers sporting a familiar capital N on each side. “New Bairin,” read the words printed across the tongues, “Made in U.S.A.” More than the brand’s name, what took me aback was the price— ¥700, or about $100, more than I paid for the authentic New Balances I had just ordered online. Who would spend so much on obvious knockoffs? Had they not been so expensive, I might have bought a pair, since for me, tourist that I was, their fakeness was a selling point. Back in the United States, pirated shoes would be a rare find, the souvenir you can’t get back home, and I could hardly ask for better proof of my time in Shanghai. Fake goods have become distinctively—even authentically—Chinese.

Anything that can be faked is faked: clothing, footwear, cell phones, watches, books, dvds, handbags, pharmaceuticals, even entire Apple stores. But not all fakes are the same: on one end of the spectrum are goods that try to pass themselves off as well-known brands—counterfeits—and on the other are those items whose names are just distinct enough for plausible deniability. New Bairin is one of the latter, known as shanzhai (山寨). This term, which literally means “mountain fort” and evokes Robin Hood-style outlaws operating beyond the government’s reach, became popular around ten years ago for all kinds of fake goods, particularly knockoff cell phones like “Nokla” or “Blockberry” that sold for much less than their international competitors. Defiant and amateurish, knockoff products have something of the underdog about them. Shanzhai, writes Yu Hua in China in Ten Words, “has a certain positive significance in China today... [I]t represents a challenge of the grassroots to the elite, of the popular to the official, of the weak to the strong” (188).

Fan Yang takes an original and nuanced look at shanzhai production in Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization (Indiana up, 2016). Yang, a professor of media studies, looks at Chinese popular culture in the years following the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization (wto) in 2001, which expanded access to global markets and required more vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights (ipr). Examining a handful of counterfeits, from off-brand cellphones to pirated films to fake luxury goods, she argues that these products and practices arose as an unforeseen consequence of China’s global integration. The economic reforms that turned the country into a manufacturing powerhouse also unleashed a potent, pent-up entrepreneurship. Once Chinese factories began rolling out Apple phones and Burberry scarves, it took only a small push to make homegrown imitations that, if not exactly original, were inventive, and undeniably unique. Shanzhai emerged as a strange eddy swirling off the mainstream of globalization, and for Yang, it’s more than an economic phenomenon. It’s fundamentally about culture—a spontaneous, unruly expression of the people.

Yet this kind of culture is not one the country’s leaders are quite willing to acknowledge. After signing onto the rules of international commerce in 2001, the government soon found itself in an awkward predicament: in order to create a national brand—to forge a recognizable identity on the world market—it had to suppress some of the most distinctive expressions of grassroots culture, the shanzhai. Yang’s “alternative account of China’s rise” emphasizes both the proliferation of counterfeits and the state’s repressive, and sometimes counterproductive, attempts to crack down on them (3).

Cell phones are the classic shanzhai product: the term first appeared in the mid-2000s to refer to off-brand devices produced in the factories of Shenzhen, which had become a center for high-tech manufacturing. Few domestic consumers could afford international brands, and clever entrepreneurs soon found ways to use existing supply chains (and lax regulation) to make similar phones at a much lower price. For Yang, this is not just a business strategy but the birth of an oppositional identity: shanzhai makers “have conjured up an imaginary of collectivity that challenges the national subject positions promulgated by the state—in this case, those of brand-creating entrepreneurs and individuated consumers” (89). (This kind of ponderous jargon weighs down an otherwise lively argument.) In other words, shanzhai phone manufacturers have created a novel form of community that makes mobile technology available to everyday workers.

A similar and even larger community exists for pirated movies. Yang takes on this unwieldy topic by looking at a single comedy from 2006, Crazy Stone (疯狂的石头). Not only does the plot revolve around a forgery—the fake gem of the title—but the director was accused of copying the style of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. In her “symptomatic” reading, she takes the film as a condensed expression of counterfeit culture. Its cult status, its shoestring budget, its characters’ heavy Chongqing accents, and its marketing strategy (official dvds were sold at pirate-edition prices) gave it the same sort of scrappy, homespun appeal of off-brand cell phones. Crazy Stone tapped into a preoccupation with authenticity, and it united fans by offering an alternative to both Hollywood imports and the sanitized cinema sponsored by the state. Yang’s analysis is convincing, though it perhaps says more about a particularly popular film than about the circulation of pirated media, foreign and domestic, inside China.

Perceptively, Yang relates the discussion of counterfeits to China’s efforts to rebrand itself as a source of innovation. Since joining the wto, and particularly after scandals involving tainted food and toys with lead paint, the government has tried to shake off the country’s associations with shoddy goods in a campaign it awkwardly dubbed “From Made in China to Created in China.” The goal is to ascend the value chain and make China synonymous with original, high-quality brands. Yang takes a dim view of this project: she argues that by adopting international intellectual property rules (what she calls the “ipr regime”), the government has embraced a set of values that are antithetical, if not overtly hostile, to any manifestation of culture that doesn’t bring in profits on the world market. Under the ipr regime, culture only counts when it sells, and above all when it sells abroad. “Replacing a conventional notion of the state-defined citizen is the figure of the global—read ‘foreign’—consumer,” she writes (43). In her reading, this shift amounts to a new kind of cultural imperialism. Shanzhai emerges as a counterpoint.

Yang’s argument is strongest in her discussion of Beijing’s Silk Street Market (秀水街). Here she unravels the paradoxes that arise when the state tries to channel counterfeit culture toward a more productive end—that is, toward an end more compatible with the ipr regime. In the 1980s, a street market sprouted up in an alley in the capital’s diplomatic quarter and soon became popular with foreigners looking to pick up knockoff Nikes or Gucci handbags. Around the turn of the century, city officials decided to capitalize on the market’s tourist appeal and give it a more permanent home by demolishing the alley and erecting in its place a six-story mall called Silk Street Market. They sought to steer vendors away from knockoffs and toward “traditional” Chinese goods such as tea and silks, but these efforts met with only partial success. Shortly after the mall opened in 2005, five international brands—Gucci, Burberry, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel—filed suit against the management, alleging it had failed to prevent vendors from selling counterfeit goods. “The irony, of course,” writes Yang, “is that what enabled the establishment of landlord liability in the lawsuit was precisely this legalized ownership of Silk Street as private property” (158). As a place, Silk Street belonged to no one and therefore to everyone; as the (branded) name of a mall, it was subject to different rules, and its new owners suffered the consequences.

The real tragedy, though, lies in the government’s decision to replace an organic expression of popular culture—a street market—with a sort of commodified folksiness. Here the fake and the real seem to have switched places. The fate of this market, even more than cell phones or films, shows the government’s shortsightedness:

the Silk Street case exemplifies the failure of the state to accommodate a different vision for national culture than the one that it has internalized as the “norm”—that is, a brandable kind of “Chineseness” typified by “time-honored” traditions, which appeals to the eyes of foreign tourists and therefore generates economic value for the city and the nation. (167)

Culture thus becomes a product like any other, judged only on the profit it can generate. The street vendors had created something distinctive and unique, an alternative to the clichéd products promoted by the authorities. What Yang calls the cultural dilemma of wto-era China is ultimately a split between the state and the nation: while the government strives to make China an acceptable international brand, the people doggedly dream up alternatives. Her goal, as she describes it, is to catalogue these efforts:

Together, these communities of meaning makers present visions for the social that are distinguishable from the individuated subjectivity proffered by ipr institutions—the same institutions that, by proffering a branded imaginary, shape the manner in which the state consolidates itself ideologically. (24)

This is the crux of the argument, but it also highlights the book’s limitations. Frustratingly, Yang stops short of saying what this community really consists of, or who is included—or indeed, how a less commercial view of culture could arise from people who are, after all, selling products, and to foreign tourists, no less. What kind of “vision for the social” does a Gocci handbag give us? For that matter, how do ipr institutions “proffer” subjectivity?

Yang discusses several kinds counterfeit culture, yet oddly doesn’t explore a taxonomy, in Chinese or in English, of these phenomena: the fake, the counterfeit, the pirated, the knockoff, the spoof . . . the 山寨, the盗版, the 冒牌, the 赝品. Each of these may have a different relationship to the “real,” and may operate, legally and culturally, according to different rules. One can’t fault her for delimiting her object of study, and she wisely avoids rehashing discussions of “aura,” “simulacra,” and other catchwords of critical theory. Still, I was left wanting more: how do these products relate to an economy of kitsch? How would her framework describe Thames Town, with its ersatz “Olde England” architecture, or Suzhou’s bizarre replica of London Bridge? Or shopping centers like Xintiandi, whose boutiques evoke the traditional lane houses of the (real) Shanghai neighborhood they replaced? These too are part of counterfeit culture, even if they don’t quite fit the story she tells. The field is broad, and fakes aren’t always on the side of the people.

A wider scope might also have made the analysis more nuanced. In Yang’s telling, counterfeiters are plucky “meaning makers,” boldly dreaming up new ways to be Chinese, while the state is merely a repressive tool of global capital. In the case of multinational luxury brands, which after all make easy villains, this approach holds up well enough, but it works less well for pirated books, and not at all for, say, fake drugs sold without active ingredients, or milk powder laced with melamine (which sickened more than 50,000 children in 2008). Even in the comparatively harmless examples she cites, Yang supposes people buy shanzhai goods because of the price, and are savvy enough to know that a “hi-Phone” is not an Apple product. But standing in front of New Bairin shoes that cost even more than New Balances, one can’t help suspecting that someone is preying on the consumer’s ignorance. (A quick visit to the online forum Zhihu reveals some confusion about whether New Bairins are “real” or fakes.) It’s easy to romanticize outlaws when their victims are corporations and the government is authoritarian. But even authoritarian states may legitimately want to keep consumers from getting ripped off.

As it happens, the case of the shoes gets even more bizarre: the New Bairins I saw inShanghai came in boxes labelled “Xin Bai Lun,” a name formerly used by New Balance in China. Apparently the trademark to that name belonged to a businessman named Zhou Lelun, who in 2013 sued New Balance for infringement. News reports aren’t clear on whether Zhou actually made or sold shoes (under Xin Bai Lun, New Bairin, or any other name), and New Balance alleged he filed the trademark in bad faith, noting that he had done so around the time the company began operating in China. In the end it was the global brand, and not the shanzhai entrepreneur, that found itself on the wrong side of intellectual property law: a court in Guangzhou ordered New Balance to pay Zhou ¥99 million in damages, though this was later reduced to ¥5 million. (In a more recent development, New Balance won a court battle against five other brands that had used its distinctive capital N logo.)

Piracy, fakes, and imitations raise complex issues, and the stories don’t always have underdog heroes or corporate villains. Yang admirably untangles some of these complexities, showing how counterfeit culture emerged in response to China’s global expansion. But by framing her study in these terms, she too readily buys into the myth of shanzhai. The reality isn’t so simple, as Yu Hua points out in his own take on subject. “When health is impaired, inflammation ensues, and the copycat trend is a sign of something awry in China’s social tissue,” he writes. “Inflammation fights infection, but it may also lead to swelling, pustules, ulcers, and rot” (192).

How far such pustules have spread, I won’t venture to say. But counterfeit culture does seem to be contagious, and worries about authenticity—the kind I imagine only art collectors used to feel—now bleed into the most mundane transactions. Are my New Balances real? They look convincing enough, but I bought them on Taobao, and I just read that the brand has no authorized retailers there. Once the doubt enters your mind, it’s hard to dispel. But the thought that maybe it doesn’t matter is somehow more unsettling still.


Allen Young's most recent translation, Double Room, by Luis Magrinyà, came out earlier this year. He writes about urbanism and culture in China, Spain, and Latin America.