The origins of China’s copycat culture

Austin Williams

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

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 China”. Similarly, in the 1950s, industrial growth strategies and urbanisation policies were taken wholesale from the Soviet Union. And more recently, in the opening-up period of the 1990s, economic models have been developed from the Western template, albeit tempered with Chinese characteristics. 

As a result of this blasé historical practice of taking from others, an attitude has developed to private intellectual capital that often treats it as public property. As such, there is not the same respect for the ‘ownership of representation’ that is expected in the West. 

China is reasonably unique in its historic development. A society that, in just 100 years, has suffered the various vicissitudes of imperial rule, revolution, internecine violence, another revolution, cultural revolution, societal regimentation and capitalist expansion has consequently become a strangely individuated society. Its communitarian pretensions are still very much in evidence on the surface but, actually, individual survivalism is regularly a pragmatic response to these ideological mood swings. 

Just as the Chinese state has had to develop rigid social structures to cope with autarkic tendencies, so the people themselves have developed philosophies to deal with autarky. After all, the name of the Chinese Communist Party, in Chinese, translates as ‘the public-property party’ and the surge of private property ownership rights and associated legislation that has occurred in the last decade has resulted in a rather pragmatic response by ordinary people – a clamour for the immediate benefits of a windfall sale of one’s house, for example, rather than a meaningful celebration of economic autonomy. 

In reality, China’s situation is very different to the windfall privatisations of the 1980s in the UK. Actually China is peopled by individuals within protective family units – honed through generations of survival – that point to the obverse of the oft-quoted phrase from Margaret Thatcher – “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families” – because in China, even though the state (and its considerable largesse) permeates every aspect of life, people are predominantly sceptical and have had to look to each other to get on. The better the network, the more likely one is to succeed and the easier it is to progress. 

China’s existence is premised on these calculated approaches to life. To succeed in public life in the past, the state originated a civil society exam-based system conducted at every level of the Chinese administrative hierarchy – after all, the highest civil status below the emperor was often the ‘grand tutor’ – and if these rigid examinations were passed at a series of levels, then the student was qualified to rise up the imperial chain. Most of these tests – just like the Chinese language itself – are premised on memorising, uniformity and repetition. With such foundation stones laid to honour the art of duplication, it is hardly surprising that it has been hardwired into the social system. 

This is reinforced by the traditional master-student relationship within schools and universities where, all too often, copying is the default position. Students at university will regularly copy out essays from the internet and present them, uncited, in all innocence. In their view, there is nothing wrong with plagiarising the ‘correct answer’ from a respected expert, instead of spending time trying to give their interpretation of the answer that could be wrong. Seen through Chinese eyes, copying is not only sensible, but it is a symbol of respect for authority and, importantly, it is a way of passing the test. 

Indeed, the Confucian-esque existence of filial piety (the structural homage to parental or teacherly authority) compounds the issue. While such deferential social structures have undoubtedly served China well over the years, they have created a society in which copying is deeply rooted in the culture and not seen as something negative. In The Impact of Confucianism on Creativity, College of William and Mary (Virginia) academic Kyung Hee Kim notes that within societies in which Confucian values predominate, “rote and repetitive learning [produces] learning in a mechanical way without thought or meaning”. This “prevalence of rote learning, memorising and drills markedly inhibit creativity”. Chinese journalist Huang Chongyao notes: “The difference between American and Chinese dreams is that the Americans have hope, we have targets.” 

China’s social structures, policies and perceptions are engineered, as far as possible, so that new ideas do not rock the boat – at least, that they do not undermine the leadership position of the party. Unsurprisingly, the education industry lays the ground rules by rigidly teaching children to copy, to repeat, to trace. 

School students, for example, learn an impressive set of artistic skills, but after years of study each student has merely learned to draw the same object for days and weeks until they ‘succeed’ in the acceptable portrayal of the object. They have been taught to draw particular objects – and only these objects – in a ‘correct’ way. For them, the aim is to ‘get it right’ rather than ‘have a go’. As a result, the system is designed to reinforce a process of engaging people to hone visual memory and regurgitation: it is but a short step to architects copying alluring Western projects. 

As Pamela Long says in her book Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance, “A useful working definition of authorship permits a gradation of meaning between the poles of authority and originality” – but the problem is that China does not yet have a fully formed sense of creative or autonomous authorship. This is changing but it is still a way off. 

As modern-day China grows in confidence, there is a more assertive belief that other countries should begin to learn from China, rather than the other way around. So on one hand, China continues to look around for established R&D that it can appropriate; on the other it wants to ensure that no one purloins its own. It is not a coincidence that the ‘opening up’ of China in 1979 was when IP rights were first recognised in the country. Obviously, there is no going back, however much some hardliners within the Chinese state machine would like to. 

It was fewer than ten years ago that China changed the country’s constitution to enshrine private property rights. Nowadays, the China Daily newspaper even has an IP channel that provides comprehensive reports on current and future trends in IP development in China. As part of this professionalised approach to patent rights, for instance, anyone – from a foreign company or an individual – who contributes to a patented invention that is made or completed in China is eligible for the Chinese government inventor reward and remuneration for abuse of these property rights. There has been a spate of legal cases recently, such as the defendant in Suzhou who was sentenced to a year in prison and a US$12,000 fine for counterfeiting Louis Vuitton and Gucci trademarks. But nobody is stealing too many Chinese design secrets… yet. 

I recently travelled on a late-night slow train from Shanghai and was accosted by a young man with a proposition for me to invest in his solar panel business. For only $2 billion, he would be in a position to buy German solar manufacturing technology or for $200 million, he’d be able to set up using American solar technology. When I asked why he wasn’t setting up a Chinese solar manufacturing plant using Chinese technology and R&D, he looked at me pitifully and said: “Why would I want to do that?” 

It’s a fair point, but it reflects something of a cultural – and actually a political – problem. But this won’t last for long. 


About the author:

Austin Williams is associate professor in architecture at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China, and director of the Future Cities Project in London. Williams is the author of The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability and co-editor of The Future of Community and The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs


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