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Emma Moore: The Great Chinese Rip Off

The Great Chinese Rip Off

By Emma Moore

Living in Japan I missed four things most – films, good coffee, English books and western bread. I expected the same to be true in China and was right on all counts but one. In Beijing I watch far more movies than I have in any other country - although I’ve yet to set foot in a Chinese cinema.

Yes, mea culpa. I too am supporting China’s gigantic intellectual property rights (IPR) rip off. Much as I support the rights of film industry moguls to make ludicrously large profits, it’s hard not to support local pirating talent. Why would I pay NZ$15 to watch whatever cheesy blockbuster the government currently allows on the big screen when I can take my pick from about 50 new releases, classics, arthouse films and TV series in a suitcase outside a restaurant across the road for NZ$1?

At every subway station, along numerous streets and on countless pedestrian overpasses in Beijing, DVD vendors squat next to their illicit goods. There is none of the secrecy or attempt at concealment common in other countries where pirating is a problem. If the street sellers’ selection is too narrow for your taste, try a DVD shop. But be warned, here you can expect to pay a premium of about 8-10 yuan per disc. That’s NZ$1.60-2.

There is currently much public hand wringing and forceful talk of stamping out IPR infringements in China. Government and local body officials are jostling to be seen to clamp down on manufactures and vendors of illegally copied goods. This week, government officials announced the destruction of almost 13 million pirated CDs, DVDs and computer software in the wake of a 100-day anti-piracy crackdown started on July 15. The campaign shut down 8,907 shops and vendors but these often reopen days later, or reopen with illegal goods hidden in back rooms. “You wanna new DVDs?” ask the sales staff at Beijing’s famous Silk Market DVD and CD store gesturing to a curtained door at the back of the store.

As huge numbers of upwardly mobile Chinese aspire to a consumerist lifestyle once denied them, the copying industry and culture have become so pervasive that eliminating IPR infringements seems nigh on impossible in a country where one could conceivably live an entirely ‘pseudo’ life...

Stumbling into out of the shower, I apply my ‘Lancôme’ make up, pull on a ‘D&G’ t-shirt, grab my ‘Prada’ bag, lace up my ‘Pumas’, and leap onto my ‘Giant’ mountain bike. Gasping in the all-too-real pollution, I arrive at work, fire up my pirated Microsoft XP software and get down to it. Checking my ‘Rolex’ at lunchtime, I go out for a sandwich at the new takeaway joint across the street called – wait for it - ‘Sub’…

The seemingly insurmountable problem faced by manufacturers of genuine software and electronics is that there is no real disincentive to buying counterfeit goods in China. A startling 90 percent of computer software currently in use here is estimated to be pirated. But gone are the days when copied programs were unreliable and subject to mysterious debilitating ailments. Now the quality is excellent and the genuine articles are far beyond most people’s budgets anyway. With an average urban wage of around NZ$170 a month, plummeting to next to nothing in rural areas, who can afford a touchy conscience?

Is it even reasonable to expect IPR to be taken seriously given that there often seems to simply be no real understanding of the concept? In May this year, five European luxury brands successfully sued the Beijing Silk Market for selling illegal copies of their products. Harsh financial penalties are now threatened against stallholders who sell fakes. But if all the rip offs were banished, there would be very little for sale. Needless to say this has not happened, and my investigations met with the usual barrage of, “Look-a look-a! You like-a [vinyl] Gucci?” and “Yes! Hello lady! You wanna [pleather] Prada?” There was, however, a large banner draped across the entrance proclaiming ‘Protect Intellectual Property Rights and Promote Innovation’. As is so often the case in China, the appearance of taking vigorous action masks the reality that little or no action is being taken at all.

Corruption may be the mechanism protecting the vast copycat industry, but communist collectivism has a lot to do with indifference to property rights. Individual ownership - let alone ownership of something as abstract as a brand, is a novel notion for people whose lives and property were until recently almost entirely state run.

But there is one small group of Chinese-invented products whose image is fiercely protected from the tarnish of poor quality reproductions both locally and overseas. They are Beibei, Jingjing, Huahua, Yingying and Nini - the 2008 Olympic mascots, collectively called the Friendlies. “Bei Jing Huan Ying Ni” translates as “Welcome to Beijing” (Beijing huanying ni). Unfortunately my Mandarin ability doesn’t stretch to translating “Hypocrites? Who, us?”


Emma Moore is a Kiwi expat journalist living and working in China.

© Scoop Media

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