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Global_17

Global Insight Brand China The origins of China’s copycat culture The Chinese attitude towards intellectual property has long been the bane of Western manufacturers. But it is not born out of disrespect, rather it comes from a long tradition of valuing rote learning over original thought Austin Williams In 1793, the Chinese Emperor Qian Long rejected the approaches of the British envoy, Lord Macartney, remarking that China did not need help or interference from “outside barbarians”. Writing to King George III shortly afterwards, he said: “I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” This refusal to engage with the wider world exemplified China’s splendid isolation at that time – ironically, for all the parochial rhetoric, trade between China and Europe grew at the rate of four per cent a year between 1720 and 1805 – and the statement expressed China’s glorious sense of independence from worldly matters. A hundred years later, provincial government official Zhang Zhidong advocated a different response to the outside barbarians. In his book Exhortation to Learning (Quan xue pian) he put forward the practical maxim: “Chinese learning for essence, Western learning for use.” In other words, China should take advantage of foreign knowledge to help advance its material and technical know-how, but it should do so while still maintaining an aloof hierarchical social, political and cultural structure of society. These historical examples have more nuanced and specific interpretations among scholars (undoubtedly, I am using them instrumentally) but they are cited here simply to indicate a fundamental truth in Chinese society. For a very long time, during which much has changed, China has maintained a delicate balance with the world – a concurrent engagement and disengagement strategy. It has engineered a remarkable ability to absorb new information and to take the best advances from others in order to strengthen the vision of China. This has often meant that material advancement has tended to be a technical rather than a social process. And because social stability has long been the primary objective of the Chinese state, any technical advance has needed to be a carefully controlled and managed procedure. So China’s so-called cultural tradition has been maintained in spite of borrowing heavily from outsiders, and actually, in many ways, has been premised on borrowing from outsiders. In the arts sector, for example, Hong Kong academic Dr Cheng Yuk Lin has pointed out that “an overwhelming number of Western ideas were ‘borrowed’ to develop art education in the first half of 20th-century 24 l www.global -br ief ing.org f i rst quar ter 2014 global


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