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China Exclusive: Faking it for money or fun?
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16:40, December 09, 2008

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It's a cold Sunday morning. Mr. Phony turned off his hiPhone alarm, put on Kabba suits and Adidos shoes, grabbed a coffee from the KFG downstairs and came back in a hurry for the latest episode of the popular sit-com Ugly Wudi.

No spelling mistakes above. Products imitating famous brands have not been uncommon around China for a couple of years - and now they have a unified name, a brand if you like, "Shanzhai".

The Chinese word "Shanzhai", literally meaning small mountain village in the dialect of southeast China's Guangdong Province. It became a popular name for fakes when "Shanzhai Cellphones", churned out by small-scale manufacturers in southern China, quickly seized a considerable chunk of the mainland market over the past two years.

Now "Shanzhai" has been given with a broader meaning of fake, unprofessional or homemade, a slang for anything that steals ideas or styles from already well-known stuff.

Imitated electronics, including cellphones, MP3s and even laptops, are the most common "Shanzhai" products. Despite the possible infringement of intellectual property rights, they are much liked by young people and those on lower incomes.

Xiang Lianfei, 25, a salesman in Shanghai, bought a fake Nokia N95, a fake iPod Nano and a fake Rado watch costing a modest 2,000 yuan, while the three genuine items would have cost him more than eight times that amount.

Xiang said compared with real ones, there was still some way to go in terms of functions, quality and after-sale services, but these "Shanzhai" items were still worth buying.

"They were usable and cheap. They look exactly like real ones and make me cool. That's enough for me," Xiang said.

And Apple Inc. might be shocked by the hot-sale copycat HiPhone, on the market while its genuine product iPhone has yet to go on sale on the mainland. Qixingjian, a HiPhone dealer running an online shop on Taobao.com, sold out 280 items within one month.

The company which manufactured HiPhone, with its brand slogan of "not iPhone, better than iPhone", had its own registered trade mark and a complete operating system.

"We know Apple may sue us, but it's driven by huge market demand. Our company needs to copy from famous brands to survive first, and we will improve our R&D and seek further development in the future," said Zhang Haizhen, vice-president of the company. Zhang chose to be identified by his own name without mentioning the name of his company.

The HiPhone company sold out about 5,000 HiPhones in the past three months, and according to Zhang, at least one million other fake iPhones had been put on sale in the mainland market, some of which were even rip-offs of HiPhones!

Zhang claimed his company was developing the technology of integrating two mobile network operators onto one cellphone.

"Imitation is the first stage for all mobile companies," he insisted, "but in the long run, it's only dog-eat-dog, that's why we are working on our home-made independent brand," he said.

From electronics to clothes and accessories, "Shanzhai" models could be a rags-to-riches story for manufacturers. But critics frowned on "Shanzhai's" lack of creativity and consumers complained some "Shanzhai" products had no quality assurance or after-sale services.

A China Central Television (CCTV) news program on Nov. 30 concluded that "Shanzhai" companies must have independent innovation and produce qualified products with IPR to establish long-standing, homemade, quality brands.

Still, the word's popularity is overwhelming. Not only is the word used in commercial TV programs and dramas and about ordinary people whose appearance looks like certain celebrities, but also many grassroots parodies made by ordinary people have been nicknamed "Shanzhai."

The fake New York Times announcing the Iraq war ended, dated July 4, 2009, was also called in China a "Shanzhai" version of The New York Times.

China also has a "Shanzhai"-version "Bird's Nest" woven by farmers with bamboo, and a "Shanzhai"-version "A Dream of the Red Mansion" (one of the classics of Chinese literature) drama directed by a college student and played by his family members.

A "Shanzhai"-version search engine called Baigoohoo.com made by a website designer allegedly for fun in November also amused netizens. It integrated search results from three giant engines, Google, Yahoo and Google China's main rival Baidu, showing in three equal pieces on one page.

And as Chinese Lunar New Year is only seven weeks away, a 36-year-old cameraman in Beijing claimed that he was planning to challenge the 25-year-old traditional CCTV New Year's Gala program through his own "Shanzhai" version.

Sun Mengqi, the chief director of the "Shanzhai" gala, has announced on the Internet that he would hold a three-hour gala "for ordinary people" with entertaining and healthy programs collected from the public, garnered huge support from netizens.

"I didn't expect so much support. Obviously many people don't like the traditional CCTV show and they want more fun," Sun said.

He then launched a website and rented an office for it. So far he has about 700 programs applying for the show. He told Xinhua that equipment for broadcast and computers were sponsored by friends and some strangers who had heard the news.

Sun said the "Shangzhai" gala would be broadcast online on the eve of the Lunar New Year, at about the same time as that of the CCTV official gala.

Different from the controversy caused by "Shanzhai" electronics and other products, many commentators and sociologists held positive views on the creativity from grassroots people.

"It represents non-mainstream ideas and innovations, and it's also a new way for common people to express what they want," said Li Zonggui, a professor from Sun Yat-Sen University, in south east China's Guangdong Province.

But still some disagreed. Zhou Xinning, an Internet commentator, said "Shanzhai" products had had a great impact on some industries and the government should pay special attention to the new phenomenon.

"We have 'Shanzhai' things everywhere, especially on the Internet. A flood of 'Shanzhai' was like junk. Policy guidance is in need," Zhou said.

Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Peking University, said that the fact the word "Shanzhai" was in fashion did not mean it would be popular all the time, but the "Shanzhai" phenomenon is worth the attention.

"'Shanzhai' companies should always keep in mind that independent innovation is crucial for long-term development. 'Shanzhai' creation by common people is the new form of our mainstream's sub-culture," Xia said.

Source: Xinhua

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