China is famous for making fake stuff – Gucci belts, iphones, or DVDs. ‘ShanZhai’ is the local word for them. I told Aaron I needed a belt and underwear. He took me to TaoBao – a kind of online shopping mall, with a huge range of products at highly discounted price. I bought what I needed, it was cheap, and decent quality. Belt and underwear happen to have a ‘Calvin Klein’ label. They may be fake, or simply last season. The seller had a ‘good reputation’, whatever that means. I simply went for it.
While I was in China, Juliette’s boyfriend was investigating ‘fake’ Apple and IKEA stores for the French news. was just back from Chengdu, where he visited a recently opened ‘fake’ IKEA store. The store sold exactly the same type of furniture as IKEA, it followed exactly the same concept for display, and used the same colour pattern on the logo – the products even had weirdly nordic names with ‘ö’s and ‘Hrtj’s. Yet the name of the store is not IKEA, nor is it run by IKEA. The other big ‘fake’ retail chain is Apple. Apple only has few ‘real’ stores in China. But you can find a large number of ‘authorised retailers’, as individual shops or inside malls. They sell Apple computers – yet are not officially Apple stores, or so I heard.
This lack of care for intellectual property may be partly what makes China so dynamic: in the age of the internet, to not care about copyright gives a real competitive advantage. That is true of clothes and retail, but it is mostly true for cultural products. DVD stores in Chinese cities generally sell ‘fake DVDs’. But they have a great collection, and offer cheap access to the best of international cinema – which people download anyway. The pirate party, which is becoming an important political player in Sweden and other European countries, would no doubt approve of that business model.
Ultimately, why would anyone buy ‘real’ DVDs, rather than the cheaper fake ones – except for quality control, and the fear of repression. As for the first of those, it may not be an issue. Factories making fake DVDs – I heard – are the same that make the real ones. Is the same true for fashion? In his beautiful Gomorrah, Saviano shows how fake and real Guccis are tailored in the same camorra-run workshops. Ming, my Chinese fashion friend, taught me there were various categories of fake – and said sometimes, category A+ fakes are better than ‘the real thing’.
Making ‘fakes’ gives a competitive edge to an economy, true. But I would like to think of a more metaphysical explanation as to why China specialises in the fake market. In the Western canon, Plato’s Republic is the key reference to understand the relationship between original and copies. In this text – both in the myth of the cavern and, later, in the analysis of art as copy, a hierarchy is established between the essence of the thing, the thing as it exists in the world, and its copies, reflections, or shadows. Benjamin re-articulates this hierarchy when studying artworks in the age of mass production: for him, as for Plato, copying leads to a dilution of substance, a loss of aura.
I wonder, does China share that metaphysics? I do know enough to ask the question, if not give an answer (which you’re welcome to discuss in comments). Maybe, in implicit Chinese metaphysics, copying does not result in any loss of substance? Reflection on Chinese Painting, as far as I know, does not articulate the relationship betweem the object in the world and its two dimensional image. Rather, it insists on how a two dimensional construction on paper can stimulate imagination – in particular through the balance of masses on the scroll, and the suggestive presence of clouds, rocks or waterfalls hiding elements of the landscape from the eye. Maybe the main function of these ‘fake’ objects, like that of a Chinese landscape painting, is to suggest another world, and invite imagination to wander.
Or maybe, these copies must be interpreted with the I-Ching in mind. If everything changes all the time, nothing is substantial. Maybe China does not believe in unchanging truths and essences. And if there is no absolute, if everything is in constant movement, a world of shifting appearances, then – what’s the point of a real Prada bag?