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What I talk about when I talk about copycatting

Recently a friend asked for help with the etymology of the word 危险。   She’s writing her thesis on the edge that artists have when they skillfully play with “danger.”  Her whole thesis revolves around the concept of Danger in art and all her professors keep telling her that 危险 has a different connotation in Chinese than danger does in English.  So she needs someone to help her to figure out what 危险originally means in Chinese. 

I am no etymologist in either language, and I am pretty sure that Chinese dictionaries like 《辞海》or 《辞源》can help.   Unfortunately I do not have either here.  So I could just search online for usage in the past and here is what I find from Baidu’s encyclopedia:

1. 亦作”危嶮 ”。艰危险恶,不安全。谓有可能导致灾难或失败。《韩非子•有度》:“外使诸侯,内耗其国,伺其危险之陂以恐其主。”险,一本作“ 嶮 ”。 汉 匡衡 《奏徙南北郊》:“劳所保之民,行危险之地,难以奉神灵而祈福祐。”《醒世恒言•隋炀帝逸游召谴》:“欲泛 孟津 ,又虑危险。” 曹禺 《北京人》第三幕:“把自己的快乐完全放在一个人的身上是危险的。”
It is pretty obvious that whenever the word 危险 appears, it does not differ with the word “danger”.  It translates into: Difficult, perilous, unsafe, having the potential to cause diasters or failures.

2. 指险恶、险要之地。《列子•黄帝》:“夫至信之人,可以感物也……岂但履危险、入水火而已哉!”《南史•垣护之传》:“ 楷 怆然许之,厚为之送,于是间关危险,遂得至乡。”
In this second explaination, 危险means basically a perilous place, a perilous situation.   In the example given for this explanation, a writer says:  the most faithful of people not only put their feet in peril and walk in fire and water (also means dangerous situations)…”

I wonder if it is this second connotation that the friend’s professors are talking about.    Maybe they are saying that the word “edge” as being somewhat equally capable of producing creativity and disaster, whereas the Chinese word of 危险 has nothing whatsoever to do with the “creativity” or “leading” connotation of the word “edge”.   In the Chinese context, playing with danger (fire) is something to be frowned upon at best, or simply percieved as stupid or anti-social.    You hear of Coleridge writing the Kublai Khan after taking opium. But you wouldn’t hear of Li Bai the great poet try something like that.

However, as the world is getting flat, recently I heard a lot of talk about “巅峰体验”(Peek experience)which emphasizes enjoyment at great heights.  That might be closer to the English phrase of “on the edge”, except that peek experience does not necessarily involve an element of danger in itself (though getting there may).   I have heard of more and more drug abuse, and other types of “dangerous” activities or relationships, among Chinese artists in the past decade.   Fortunately, Haruki Murakami recently wrote “What I talk about when I talk about running” in which the famous Japanese author run marathons habitually as an antidote to his “unhealthy” habit of writing.   That seems to suggest a better way to rid the body, mind and soul of the innate toxins of writing or other types of creativitive activities.  Let the body fuel the mind, so, whoever is reading this, get moving!   (Quotation from Murakami’s book:  “Please excuse the strange analogy: with a fugu fish, the tastiest part is the portion near the poison  — this might be something similar to what I’m getting at… So from the start, artistic activity contains elements that are unhealthy and antissocial.  … This is why among writers and other artists there are quite a few whose real lives are decadent or who pretned to be antisocial… But those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangours (in some cases lethal ) toxin that reside within…”)

Back to danger and risk taking topic.   Some adventurous activities are indeed dangerous, but have the potential of producing something useful for humanilty.   For instance, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite to capture electricity and almost got himself killed in the storm.   Thomas Edison blew up his chemicals on a train and got himself deaf.   Is there any risk-free invention?  That does not sound right.

Then I remembered an evening when I see a few teenagers engaged in a very dangerous activity near the Ohio River.  They rode their bikes from a slope, lift themselves up and throw themselves into the river, bikes and all.  To me that is stupid, unhealthy, unproductive.  Certainly not my idea of having fun. Then there are those who iron their T-shirts on a cliff in what is labeled “extreme ironing”.    Obviously there are people who enjoy having fun when they are pushed to the limit, literally.

In other words, purpose-driven edginess produces inventors and entrepreneurs.  Random edginess produces jackasses and reality show freaks.  But to stay on the “edge”, society pays the price of tolerating some oddballs.

The dual nature of “edge” explains the relative adventurousness of westerners, because indeed some would go to great extremes (limits, edges) to pursue utmost happiness or achievement.   That may be something to think and learn about.  But these are not us.    Sometime in history, we developed a mentality that appreciates being among the mean, median and mode of things.   We call it balance.  We call it the golden means.   Outliers are those who lie somewhere, out.  That is very different from the “leading –edge” mentality.   Being on the leading edge is something to be admired.  You are on the edge.  You lead.   We say these too, in phrases like “敢为天下先”(Dare to be the first in the world”), but then there are many more guns aimed at the first bird who sticks its head out.  In this kind of environment, first movers have less advantage than second movers, but collectively we risk becoming leggards.  We need to dare to be the first again.

But this does not seem to be a popular idea. Even one of the most successful CEOs of China, Ma Huateng of QQ (the Chinese version of MSN), says that he never try to be randomly creative.   Even Google, he said, imitate something from somebody.  There is some truth to that, but not much.

Of course, even Rogers, the author of “Diffusion of Innovations”  (which is like the Bible of innovation) says that innovation is what is PERCIEVED as new by the user, not necessary something out of nowhere.  After all, according to King Soloman, there is nothing new under the sun.    However, it becomes a problem, when “shan zhai culture” (山寨文化), or copycat culture, becomes part of the culture.   I sometimes wonder what to make of it, if you watch someone try and wait to see if it works.  That’s good peer learning for sure.  But in the long run, is that wisdom or stupidity?

Categories: General Tags: , ,
  1. miaka9383
    March 25th, 2009 at 17:16 | #1

    Its neither. It is laziness. Why create your own when you can improve on something that already exists?
    But lack of enforcement in IP laws,enables these laziness.

  2. Shane9219
    March 25th, 2009 at 19:07 | #2


    “shan zhai culture” (山寨文化) — “It is laziness”

    Not at all. It’s completely the oposite. It’s an active and creative usage, it is a case of so-called asymmetric competition, so that emerging economies can leap frog to the front, making more creative contribution in the future. Why need to re-invent wheels of so obvious 🙂

    Japan has been using Chinese characters since Japan adopted Chinese culture in ancient time. So is Japanese culture a case of “shan zhai culture” (山寨文化)?

    The old “IP’ concept is outdated and has to adjust to the era of globalation. For example, open-source software is an interesting experiment.

  3. miaka9383
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:05 | #3

    I completely disagree.. well not completely….
    IP concept is not outdated in fact it is still around. There are still needs to be IP laws around to protect the originator’s right. If I create a software, sometimes I want to sell it for money. Yes Open source software is an interesting concept, but it is up to the creator to decide not the public.
    If I am a writer, I want to copy right my stuff so no one can plagerize stuff. If I have an innovative idea that I want to pursue, I don’t want other people to get their hands on it to make money off of my ideas. It is all about integrity.
    A good example is: I download music, but I also still buy CD’s. Why? because I want to sample the songs.

    Yes Japanese culture borrowed from Chinese culture, but it is totally different when it comes to IP.
    It absolutely bothers me that China doesn’t have their own operating system yet….now that they have their own computer chip (copied from Intel). There are plenty of smart Chinese researchers and inventors. It is purely laziness.

    Of course, I can’t blame them and I don’t blame them. But as an engineer myself, I realize that there is use to this culture, but however, we need to be inspired to create new inventions to make our lives easier. Without IP, these inspiration to try new things would become extinct. That and if IP doesn’t exist, I, along with other engineers would soon be out of a job. Just like, my dad, whom works for Intel is afraid that he will lose his job.

  4. Berlin
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:10 | #4

    I’ve heard people say, in oversimplified terms, that Chinese toil in the world factory so that those in developed countries can focus on creativity and innovations, or claim to do so. Then we learn what is best of their innovations to create local copies (such as Baidu based on Google) in copycatting or creative copycatting, if there is such a thing. So the world becomes flat before it becomes round?

    In education, there is much talk about sharable, reusable learning object that universities fought to implement. But put in a global setting, when this happens between nations, the reallocation of labor (including intellectural labor) somehow become complicated issues because there are other things at stake such as national pride.

    I don’t think Shanhai culture necessarily mean an open source type of thinking. Most people use it as an excuse for not being original. Being original and on the leading edge should be something to pursue. “If you aim at the moon, you would end among the stars even if you don’t reach”. 取法乎上,得乎其中。

    Besides, it is not as if Chinese are not capable of being creative and innovative. To become a real great nation, shanzhai culture should not be encouraged. It only leads to second-best or even worse products.

  5. TonyP4
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:24 | #5

    危险 means danger. 危 and Kay (I do not know how to input in Chinese) means danger and opportunity.

    I suspect Japanese and Koreans were refugees/exiles from China and both adopted Chinese characters as their initial written language. Korean language has been revised. However, you can find traditional Chinese characters in old Korean temples. Today, Japanese’s written language is still about 35% Chinese. It is quite easy for Chinese to learn written Japanese. Both oral languages are completely different from Chinese.

    I suspect Japanese interpreted this ‘crisis and opportunity’ (2-word phrase) and exported this concept to the west. Many years ago (20 or so), most American big companies had too many money to spend. They had a lot of seminars (great for those who provided these seminars to motivate executives/managers. I took many of these seminars. Some were required. Our boss pretty much forced us to take most being a monopolized industry and playing politics is the only game.

    They spent one day on this word with explanation, group exercise… Those were the days we had shrimp cocktails for every meeting and at least two free dinners during X’mas. We traveled first class being a worker in a world-class corporation.

  6. Shane9219
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:28 | #6


    “Yes Japanese culture borrowed from Chinese culture, but it is totally different when it comes to IP.”

    Perhaps Chinese should make patents out of Chinese characters several thousand years ago, and brought up a WTO case now to bar Japan from printing and publishing 🙂 It is certainly a joke.

  7. Berlin
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:34 | #7

    Tony, I believe that phrase is 危机(dangerous opportunity). My former boss (an American) has the calligraphy of these two characters hanging in his office.

    I am wondering what kind of opportunities there are in this financial crisis.

    My sister working in a wedding gown company said her company’s business is very prosperous now.

    Maybe more people are getting married to save the cost of living by themselves.

  8. Shane9219
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:37 | #8


    Any serious and creative work needs a strong capital base and market share. Until the private industries feel comfortable about their share, they will continue to take comparative advantage approach through asymmetric competition. That is market force at working, you can’t stop that.

    The current trend is that there are already quite many private industry giants such as BYD and Hawai capable to compete head-to-head in the global market.

  9. TonyP4
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:50 | #9

    Hi Berlin,

    All countries may have to go thru the several stages of industrialization. The first phase is assembling cheap products and the last phase requires innovation. China may pass the first phase and is working on the second phase and US is in the last phase.

    IPod is assembled in China but designed by US.

    China has some innovations. Most DVDs in the world are designed and assembled in China. A lot of auto parts are designed in China. China can design the entire airplane except the engine. The space program requires a lot of supporting technologies, esp. US and the west do not transfer these technologies.

    To steal (or copy depending your POV) requires a lot of knowledge too in today’s complicated products.

  10. berlinf
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:54 | #10

    @Shane9219, I’m glad to see that there are more giants who can compete globally.

    In the meantime, domestically, China could incubate more and more small businesses to sustain growth and reduce dependence on exports. That’s another reason why it is important to think out of the box at this time.

  11. TonyP4
    March 25th, 2009 at 20:59 | #11

    #8. BYD could be the most innovative product from China. This technology is invented in MIT and the other US company using the same technology is buying the BYD car to see whether Chinese violate their patent.

    #7. Berlin, there are a lot of opportunities in current financial crisis. If you’re smart enough to know the problem before public knowledge, you can make a bundle by shorting the financial stocks (betting them to fall). You can buy stocks of the industries that would benefit from the crisis. A lot go to school and so the stocks of these colleges are making good money. Selling foreclosure properties is very demanding. Gold is at its 25 years high. Walmart and dollar stores are doing great.

    If you have cash to buy some houses now or stocks like GE, you may be laughing to the bank 5 years from now. I wrote at FM to buy oil at $35 not too long ago and now it is over $50.

    99% business suffer but 1% are doing great. 99% of hedge funds are losing money but 1% are making billions if they short the market. Crisis means opportunity for very few.

    Ask the lawyers here and I bet some will find they’re more busy now.

  12. JXie
    March 25th, 2009 at 21:00 | #12

    Ma of QQ was right. Google certainly wasn’t the first one who indexed the whole Internet, that was Alta Vista, which is rolled under Yahoo now. Back then (98, 99 and 00), most search engines thought searching was capital intensive (think all the servers needed) and not profitable. Even Alta Vista went to the portal business with its searching as a side show. Google was neat with its searching algorithm being the first incorporated inward referencing into page ranking, which drastically improved the search relevancy. But it wasn’t anything so great that Google wasn’t willing to sell itself out for a mil or 2 in 1998/99. Google in those years gradually became a people’s favorite search engine, with everybody else deserting the field thinking it was not that profitable.

    Then there was this idea of paid search invented by Bill Gross (not the Pimco bond king Bill Gross) who incubated goto.com and rolled up to Overture. Overture was later bought by Yahoo. Paid search totally changed the landscape of the searching business and has made Google immense amount of money. Goto.com/Overtune/Yahoo sued Google for its use of paid search, and that lawsuit was settled for some Google shares, which fetched Yahoo more money that the total amount paid for Overture. The one with a “wouldda/couldda/shouldda” story might have been Gross in how he managed goto.com’s business. But that sob is rich enough.

    Baidu ISN’T a copycat of Google. Robin Li came from Infoseek. When he went back to China to start Baidu, there wasn’t the concept of paid search, and Google was a small outfit. BTW, Li was snubbed by Charles Zhang of Sohu.com initially for a partnership arrangement (with Baidu a junior member of course). How fortune changes…

    At a micro level, the stories people keep telling you about risk taking, has a very strong survival bias built in. In other words, the vast majority of others who totally fail or even die, don’t get to tell their tales. Risk taking rarely pays, especially if you don’t have an insurance… At a macro level, most developed nations aren’t that innovative. Only a few highly concentrated areas you can call innovation hotbeds, with the most famous being the Silicon Valley. The key is, an area with a high percentage of very smart and well educated people. For that, China is getting there.

  13. JXie
    March 25th, 2009 at 21:11 | #13

    Some of the Shanzhai products are quite innovative in their own right. Maybe the edge needs to be refined, and the market message needs to be re-packaged. But don’t ever sneer at the movement. In a way, the early PC and Internet revolutions were quite Shanzhai as well.

  14. Berlin
    March 25th, 2009 at 21:38 | #14

    Thanks to Tony for the suggestions about opportunities! Maybe I should take advantage of these.

    To Jxie, thanks for the informative lesson on the growth of these IT companies. I didn’t know that Li of Baidu came from this background.

    The problem with Shanzhai is that the word is not actually clear in meaning. Some use it to just as an excuse for shoddy copycatting. I can see from the examples you gave that it could also mean location customization, or re-invention of products inspired by other models?

  15. miaka9383
    March 25th, 2009 at 22:49 | #15

    During the late Tang Dynasty and Sui Dynasty, the emperor welcomed the Japanese Scholars to study and adapt their culture into their own. Even if IP laws existed back then, it would’ve easily proven that they had permission. The case in court wouldn’t hold.

    I think the misconception here is that innovation means taking risks, and it is not. Google gives 10 -15 hours a week for their employees to research and create their own stuff. The employee can chose to sell it to google or not. That is the benefit of IP. However, I question, why is it that there are so many chinese researchers here in the West, especially here in U.S vs staying in China? Is it because the IP laws encourage new things to be invented?
    Wouldn’t it be great if China encourages the same environment? This is how a country can make money! I am disappointed that China has to use borrowed technology to create something that is their own. They have to use reverse engineering to create something. That is why some defense contractors won’t outsource their jobs to China and instead to India (also labor is cheaper) in fear that their Chinese/Japanese employees won’t follow their ethics agreements and take that knowledge going into other Chinese company or even the government. Frankly, they view China as a risk.

  16. Shane9219
    March 25th, 2009 at 23:31 | #16

    @miaka9383 “Frankly, they view China as a risk.”

    They have to come to China sooner or later, and they will make trade-in with their so-called “IPs” for a market share, that has been part of game plan, no secret for many years 🙂

    If you are working at a company without a China strategy, mabye you should urge comapny executives to take such deal.

    Need any proof ?

    “VMware will expand in China as it moves to meet rising demand for desktop and data center virtualization in the country, a company executive said in an interview Wednesday”


  17. Nimrod
    March 26th, 2009 at 03:58 | #17

    Berlin wrote:

    “Besides, it is not as if Chinese are not capable of being creative and innovative. To become a real great nation, shanzhai culture should not be encouraged. It only leads to second-best or even worse products.”

    I very much disagree. I think the opposite is true, and I instead agree with JXie here. Let us be mindful of how innovation starts in early industrializing societies — it starts small and chaotic, a veritable marketplace of ideas, and it starts by satisfying unique simple demands cheaply.

    Well what do we even mean by shanzhai. The broad category isn’t really about copycat products, but about guerrilla proudcts, which are really the true cottage industries of China. I think it is very exciting. Many products are truly home-grown and adapted to domestic niches, and some are downright innovative (and dangerous). Take the rechargeable electro-chemical hot water bottle (for personal heating) that was all the rage a couple of years ago. It was representative of all of the electronic trinkets of the utilitarian kind. In higher-tech realms, arguably China has a much more developed internet messaging, social networking, and gaming space, as well as a proliferation of streamed video technology (ironically due to the lack of IP protection). Even if these technologies exist in some more refined forms elsewhere, they are developing in China’s own little laboratory and the business models are different.

    Even in cases where the physical product is mostly copycat, to be shanzhai there has to be creativity somewhere, maybe in the way the brand or logo is designed to fool. Even then, it’s more a tactic to gain brand recognition more than anything. Often these are followed by products with improvements thath are not only better than the version copied but cheaper, too. This goes beyond replication which was the first step of accepting new technology. I believe it demonstrates a high degree of innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, which combined with a nascent fluency with modern mass production, distribution, and marketing, marks the first years of China’s domestic consumer culture (which will feed back further unique demands that will be satisfied by innovation). It’s a powerful combination to emerge from export-oriented mechanical assembly and imported technology. This feels a lot like the post Civil War US in terms of shanzhai-ness, and that was probably the most explosively creative period in US history and the history of the world.

  18. Berlin
    March 26th, 2009 at 04:26 | #18

    Nimrod, I am not really convinced that Shanzhai can be a powerful model even if it has “a high degree of innovative and entrepreneurial spirit” as you claimed (I think the very opposite. What you described conflicts with the very nature of shanzhai). When people use that phrase to mean localization or customization (such as the spicy chicken in Beijing KFCs), of course that is fine. But if you check the etymology of “shanzhai” (http://baike.baidu.com/view/268947.htm), you will notice that it did not start that way, and it probably wouldn’t end that way. It is characterized by being low cost copycatting in most cases. I think the net generation just romanticize it and think this is something the grassroot can use to combat the elitists, or the monopolies, or the government. I agree that innovation can start somewhere, such as researching competition in the market, but just take their products as a prototype and do something similar (which is Shanzhai is mostly about) is the not the right way to industrialize, if we are honest with ourselves.

    People always want to work “smart” rather than work “hard.” But there is a cost to everything (such as the loss of creative and entrepreneurial spirit, the sacrifice of normal businesses who play by the rules). In the long term, skipping steps and cutting corners will hurt.

  19. Nimrod
    March 26th, 2009 at 05:55 | #19

    I think you are just longing for monopoly rights in a patent-enforcing system, which protect innovations of high developmental cost. This isn’t by any means wrong. Eventually China will get there. In fact, the same people developing shanzhai products now will demand enforcement then. Right now I think we’re still in the cottage industry stage, for which low barrier to entry and rapid distribution and commoditization are actually beneficial. By the way, being in this stage is not determined by romantic desire of grassroots, but by the fact that China’s internal consumer demand is under-developed due to cost vs. purchasing power imbalances, so there are unmet demand-side growth needs, and shanzhai meets those needs. It’s an economic phenomenon.

  20. March 26th, 2009 at 08:42 | #20

    … Li Bo/Bai wrote poems while drunk! 🙂

  21. Kage Musha
    March 26th, 2009 at 09:13 | #21

    China is catching up. Jumping from 1 to 5 steps is not that easy. So instead of trying to get to 5 in one step they try to get to 3 first. But 3 already exists…so they copy it instead of re-inventing (the wheel) it and add some stuff to it so they can get to 5 faster 😉

    btw…QQ is not a Chinese version of MSN, but rather ICQ back then.
    But QQ has surpassed all of them.

  22. miaka9383
    March 26th, 2009 at 15:08 | #22

    They do have a China strategy. They just don’t want to share defense technology to china vs india. They have the commercial plants and such in China, but that is all the risk that they want to take. I agree with what berlin has said, this culture has allowed inferior products unto the market. BTW I have used QQ but I prefer to use MSN. The reason ICQ phased out was because the user interface with a number as a user name and pwd is just not user friendly. Eventually QQ will be phased out also.
    We should not be encouraging bad products. It is awesome VMware is expanding to China, however, that’s their strategy to get the Chinese market hoping that the chinese developers won’t develop the same thing. Can you honestly say that innovation is encouraged under this culture?

    P.S side note Chinese government shut down youtube because tibetan exhiles posted video of PLA soldiers beating on Tibetan monk. For crying out loud, everything and everyone posts on youtube, so why not post another video that attacks that?

  23. Nimrod
    March 26th, 2009 at 15:42 | #23

    ICQ is phased out because its parent company, Mirabilis, was bought by AOL.
    User name and password don’t enter into it. It is too long ago and I don’t remember any more but I think it had some advanced features that were not replicated till later in other clients. Anyway, QQ is not going anywhere. I don’t see Tencent, which has a large portfolio, selling its signature product. Chinese people use MSN (to talk to people outside China) or QQ, and QQ won:

    Why MSN Lost to QQ in China Market?


    By the way, take note that a similar lack of “security” is at play here to create success in the local market. You see the same with Baidu, because it offered free (often pirated) mp3 and lyrics downloads for the longest time, which it has since turned into a sort of pop music charts service.

  24. berlinf
    March 26th, 2009 at 15:44 | #24

    @miaka, I think the Chinese government is “too simple and sometimes too naive” (or ostensibly so, I am not sure) when it plays games in the Internet world. It resort mainly to “ban and block” methods whereas Obama’s government uses the Internet to organize and engage people.

  25. miaka9383
    March 26th, 2009 at 16:04 | #25

    More people in the world still uses MSN, Skype more than they use QQ.
    I also avoid using QQ, because the first time I used it, somehow my computer was spammed. I hate spam, hence why I stoped using AIM.
    QQ and AIM both are very local markets. I don’t see it to be on a more global scale unless it makes changes.. ie the UI, the “security” so on and so forth. You can say I am a tech snob……

    Baidu is good when it comes to a search engine, but the UI sucks. I hate hate hate popups. Why does it have to open up a new page everytime I click on a link? so annoying….. Of course you are right.. lack of “security” makes it popular…. is that a good thing?
    Free is always good, but lack of protection of these data is bad. I mean, anyone can upload a virus into it and infect tons and millions of computers. Anti Virus doesn’t always catch everything.
    Verycd is a good example. I am very wary from downloading anything from there, because I have seen my friend’s computer getting infected.

  26. miaka9383
    March 26th, 2009 at 16:09 | #26

    In computer security, my prof is actually talking about the Great Firewall of China. We are learning how it works, so we can bypass it. But, if they can implement this complicated firewall, they are just as tech savvy to use internet to their advantage. They just won’t. It is retarded!!! (can’t find a word to express my frustration)
    What is even worse is that the article that I was reading, many FQ ends up on there supporting CCP’s behavior. This type of behavior is paranoid and wrong at its best. But they are the government what they say goes!

  27. berlinf
    March 26th, 2009 at 16:24 | #27

    @A-Gu, I didn’t think of that. So does Huai Su when he did his calligraphy.

  28. berlinf
    March 26th, 2009 at 16:27 | #28

    miaka, I have no doubt about the technical sophistication of the Chinese government. But the problem is that the technical part is not everything. It lacks sophistication in orchestrating the message, medium and method for its benefit. Yes, it is good at “security”, so to speak, but it uses that as the universal hammer to bang on all issues as if they are all nails.

  29. TonyP4
    March 26th, 2009 at 17:19 | #29

    #22. Actually I watched at least 2 YouTubes with Chinese POV against Tibet exiles.

  30. berlinf
    March 26th, 2009 at 17:58 | #30

    Actually I see some improvement:

    1. Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang gave BBC 3.14 CD for BBC to broadcast;


    2. Just recently, Wen Jiabao asks the ministries to “make clarifications online yourself, do not ask for my approval.”

    So it is getting more and more optimistic.

  31. huaren
    March 26th, 2009 at 18:24 | #31

    JXie, #12
    Nimrod, #17

    Great posts.

    Nimrod, #23

    Interesting paper.

    Makes me wonder – does that mean that the average Chinese citizen are less paranoid about their government?

  32. miaka9383
    March 26th, 2009 at 19:19 | #32

    Every mainland Chinese that I have ran into praises Wen and Hu’s charisma… That Charisma and the technological sophistication can take them some where… a reform… that won’t disturb stability.. so Why won’t they?

  33. Berlin
    March 26th, 2009 at 19:46 | #33

    miaka, I guess I am among these mainland Chinese who like Wen’s charisma. But the “Chinese government” is not a single person. It’s a type of collective leadership that may represent different interests and concerns. It has its own kind of check and balance within. With that it may take longer for change to happen on a grand scale.

    But you’ll notice that small reforms are taking place here and there with or without the top administrators’ blessings. There will be a critical mass. There will be a tipping point if nobody hurries it.

    Of course, it is very testing for one’s patience to have to tolerate such stupid acts like Youtube blocking.

  34. Berlin
    March 26th, 2009 at 19:51 | #34

    But I do place a lot of hope in the current administration. Did anybody else happens to notice how weird their surnames are:

    If not me, who (Hu)?
    If not now, when (Wen)?

  35. miaka9383
    March 26th, 2009 at 19:55 | #35

    I guess there’s always problems with different governmental structures….

  36. Nimrod
    March 26th, 2009 at 21:15 | #36

    Berlin #18, #25,

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree here. But let me summarize my view on this. I think innovation doesn’t come out of vacuum. It needs a context. The context is demand, and demand can only be expressed through actual economic behavior. You can’t “encourage” innovation where it isn’t demanded, except maybe in government funded research labs totally detached from economic forces. (Remember that even with IP rights tightly enforced, the costs of innovation still would have to be recouped by selling products!)

    As with the IM client issue, we’re talking about domestic market of China. Personally I don’t use QQ and not very much Baidu. People have different sensabilities, I mean even that paper I quoted said MSN originally targeted white collar foreign firm workers (very small slice of China). But what makes QQ and all the shanzhai product actually “take” is — let’s not forget this — the demand of the not very rich consumer class. China is still mostly rural, for god’s sake. You need to first engage that demand and match their taste and purchasing power, before you have the base and economy of scale to sustainably innovate. As this class of people grow more sophisticated and richer, so will the value of innovation, and thereby the benefits for IP protection.

    Finally, don’t dismiss reverse engineering. AMD got its start by copying Intel and making shanzhai 486 chips for cheapskates who didn’t want to pay full price.

  37. huaren
    March 26th, 2009 at 21:27 | #37

    Also, increasingly technology products are standardized.

    For example – the routers and switches Huawei make are based on network protocols standardized internationally.

    Huawei’ products are “copies” of Cisco’s products simply because Cisco started making them first. For newcomers in the network equipment industry, they have no choice but to “copy” incumbent players if they wish to compete.

    A lot of innovation goes into making such products cheaply so everyone on the planet can afford them.

  38. Wahaha
    March 26th, 2009 at 21:34 | #38

    I guess I am among these mainland Chinese who like Wen’s charisma. But the “Chinese government” is not a single person. It’s a type of collective leadership that may represent different interests and concerns.


    That is what Westerners will never understand.

    By their criteria, unless you can vote, your voice will never be heard by government.

    The naive opposite of this is that most of them believe if they can vote, then they have a people’s government, which is far from the realty.

  39. Berlin
    March 26th, 2009 at 21:43 | #39

    Wa Ha Ha, speaking of the representativeness of public opinons, one reason I like Wen Jiabao is because he actually goes to each and every (well almost) counties in China, so he gets an idea of what life is like out there in these different places. Both he and Hu Jintao goes to the internet for information. That’s a big big change. So Wen is not exactly insulated from realities like many earlier leaders are. He may know some places better than local governers and mayors.

    What frustrated me most is the suprression of opinions on the Internet. I don’t get it. I think that is very stupid.

  40. TonyP4
    March 26th, 2009 at 21:52 | #40

    Ignore it.

  41. miaka9383
    March 26th, 2009 at 21:56 | #41

    @Berlin #39
    I think that is most people’s frustration. I think if the Chinese citizens starts calling their party members that represent their area at “ren min da hui” then more things would get done. The thing is, what are the consequences if they do that? I don’t know the answer to that, but if these party members are corrupted then there could be problems for that citizen who has complained. That would be a good big step, for the “ren min da hui” to represent the people then the party itself.

  42. Berlin
    March 26th, 2009 at 22:06 | #42

    @Nimrod, I wonder if we are talking past each other. But yes, it is OK if we disagree. When talking about the products, and how they came into being, we were talking about how innovation happens. I still believe we need to encourage and reinforce a creative spirit instead of a Shanzhai one.

    This may be a totally different topic, but Shanzhai is also a culture, of staying in the blackmarket, staying in the 江湖, staying out of the systems. If we encourage this, it messed up the society in many ways.

    In Oct 2008 I went back to China, after I left the bus to take the taxi, the place where licensed taxis are supposed to be, gathered many “black” taxis. I had to take one of these. The taxi driver gave me fake money when I paid him. So that’s another face of “shanzhai” culture. Fake this and fake that. Before you know it, guys who play by rules were driven out of the market, and ordinary people like me suffer from the consequences.

    One month after I came back to the US, I began to read numerous reports of taxi drivers putting on strikes because there are simply too many black taxis in the market and the government isn’t doing a good job curbing it. It simply got out of control. It may all have happened because someone turned a blind eye when the first black market taxis appeared.

  43. Nimrod
    March 27th, 2009 at 02:12 | #43

    You raise a good point about people playing by the rules losing out (but that by no means implies they are the most innovative; sadly for them, quite the opposite, usually). And this usually happens when the rules in question don’t actually make sense. It’s the perverse side effect of distorted markets that they create black markets. The taxicab example demonstrates to me that people accept taking black taxis, and therefore there are not enough legitimate cabs, perhaps because they are priced too high to begin with. The following article seems to agree:


    Now for certain things you need rules, usually something having to do with public safety or the public good. Taxicabs is probably one such case, even as the problem could be more effectively tackled when coupled with addressing the underlying cause.

    I guess I agree (and have agreed here in the past) that respect for rules is much lacking in China to the detriment of developing a law-based society. That’s the real minus, and I’ll chalk that one up gladly. I just don’t think it has a similar detrimental effect on innovation at this time, which is a completely different issue.

  44. Berlin
    March 27th, 2009 at 03:22 | #44

    Nimrod, I blame it on Deng Xiaoping’s “White Cat, Black Cat” theory. If the end justifies the means, of course anything goes. Deng may not have seen how his cat became ferocious lions after he let it out of the cage.

    The black taxi issue is the child of failing governance and the white-cat-black-cat mentality. Failing governance because he cops are not doing their jobs getting rid of them. In addition, they charge too much fees on the licensed drivers and make it unprofitable to play by the rules. So blackmarket taxis thrived. It gets the profit without having to pay government anything, unless when they are caught. Even when they are caught, the fine would not be prohibitively high to prevent them from trying again.

  45. Berlin
    March 27th, 2009 at 03:24 | #45

    If life is easier to be an outlaw, who would want to play by the rules of man and God?

  46. huaren
    March 27th, 2009 at 06:49 | #46

    @Berlin, #44

    “I blame it on Deng Xiaoping’s “White Cat, Black Cat” theory. If the end justifies the means, of course anything goes.”

    Would you blame Chinese people spitting in public on Deng? Where do you draw the line? Also, you have misunderstood Deng’s message. Wasn’t his point to do away with ideology and embrace capitalism?

    Black markets exist whenever demand outstrip supply by a wide margin.

    Also, I’ve been to China numerous times – I’ve encountered a black taxi only once.

    You are groundless in blaming Deng. I also think you are blowing this black taxi thing out of proportion.

  47. Wukailong
    March 27th, 2009 at 08:31 | #47

    I don’t think the black taxi problem is particularly big, especially not in Beijing. From where I work there are black taxis at times, though they seem to focus on very specific times (like 7 pm when most taxis are occupied) and places (during the morning, the place I stay have a lot of them). Obviously they fill a demand, though most of the time people seem to turn them down.

  48. Berlin
    March 27th, 2009 at 13:51 | #48

    “Would you blame Chinese people spitting in public on Deng? ”
    But the black-cat-white-cat argument, though well-intended at the beginning, detereoriated and became “toxic assets” in our national thinking. It can be interpreted as “anything goes” by reciepients of the message.

    You know how things in China works. Did Mao actually started the cultural revolution? I am pretty sure he didn’t anticipate things to end the way it did. But things did get out of control. It has a cascading effect when one little speech or remark from someone in high positions get blown up many times over and it then became something bad. Did Hu Jintao ever think, in his wildest dream, that “harmony” is now becoming a negative word, a euphamism for censorship?

    Fortunately the government is reflecting on the negative consequences it has produced, such as the environmental disasters businesses cost while pursing profits. And it is trying hard to build the rule of law. Not hard enough though.

  49. Berlin
    March 27th, 2009 at 14:01 | #49

    @Wukailong: “I don’t think the black taxi problem is particularly big”.

    Then I challenge you to search 黑车问题 on Google. On the first page, I see the issue being reported in official media in Yunnan, Zhejiang, Beijing, Chang Chun, Chunqing, Nanjing, Hainan…It’s everywhere, where have you been?

    I started my first encouter with blackmarket taxis as early as 1998 while I was traveling in Beijing for business. In those days, some drivers use “公家车” to do priviate business at hotels etc as a sideline. But I wouldn’t have thought it became so severe later on. In my own encoutner with the Blackmarket taxi in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, the place I went to was dominated by black market taxis. The ones licensed were literally driven out. It is appalling. Last year, there had been several strikes by taxi drivers. The one that caught the most attention is the one in Chongqing, where Bo Xilai is the head.

    But I am using this personal encounter only as an example of the problems we have been discussing here. But while we are still at the topic, I think someone ought to do a PhD dissertation about it because the problem is so universal, and so revealing of China’s problems in this age. Use, for instance, the Chongqing strike as a critical incident. A deep study of the issue may really help China the way many American sociologists study a particular “crisis” to generate insights.

    I don’t think I have blown the issue out of proportion. It is simply out of control. It reflects many systematic failures of China in regulation, in protecting law-abiding businesses, and in protecting consumers. Blackmarket taxis is only one instance of the problems. Think of the contaminated milk. Why almost everybody does so? Because there is perverse incentive for not doing business the way business should be done.

    I love China probably as much as many of you here do, but I don’t think hiding our problems help. If there is any small part that we Internet folks can play, we ought to use whatever little influence we have to promote the rule of law, reason, respect, not the laws of the jungle as demonstrated in such things as the Shanzhai culture.

  50. Berlin
    March 27th, 2009 at 14:17 | #50

    @Huaren again: “Black markets exist whenever demand outstrip supply by a wide margin.”

    You may say the same thing about prostitution and drug abuse. Of course it exists because human beings are simply sinners by nature. The more useful question to think about is: what to do about it?

    Pointing out that the problem exists can be a place to start.

  51. March 30th, 2009 at 07:43 | #51

    Black taxis have a function in the market: they cover peak times where the available official taxis are not enough. They are able to do this because they are not full-time taxis; they are used for other purposes, being mobilised as taxis only in peak demand. Normal taxis could not do that economically.

    In Shanghai black taxis are relatively rare (usually black motorbikes do their role), and I have often found myself regretting this in rainy days when I was waiting 30min and not a single empty taxi passed by.

    Anyway, I know there are reasons to be against black taxis. But frankly speaking, China has worse problems than that, and those guys are not doing anything essentially bad. They’re just taking the opportunities given by the market, just as anybody else in this country.

    @Berlinf – I liked very much your post but it speaks of so many things at the same time that I don’t know where to start to comment… 🙂

  52. Berlin
    March 30th, 2009 at 14:14 | #52

    Uln, I agree that this is not the worst problem in China, but it is just one that I am most familiar with after personal encounters. So I used it as an illustration. I see as a symbol of a parallel society in China, an explicit one and a hidden one, sometimes the latter gets the upper hand.

    I am constantly thinking a millions things at the same time, and yes it shows in the blog post. Sorry for being so “scatter-brained”.

  53. cephaloless
    March 30th, 2009 at 19:23 | #53

    @ Uln

    I don’t explicitly disagree with anything you’ve said in #51 but I’d also like to point out that what you’re saying there points to a problem with the taxi licensing system. If there aren’t enough taxis (legally licensed – unlicensed I’d just call it somebody’s car) and people should be allowed to use their vehicles to fill in when needed to make extra cash, then why have licenses for taxis at all. Everybody with a car/bike/wheelbarrel with umbrella/… can be considered a part-time taxi service to meet demand. Perhaps it is better to do away with licensing for taxis but there are also many obvious reasons why there is a licensing requirement. Endorsing unlicensed taxis puts all the problems that licensing is supposed to control back on the street. And perhaps the problem with the taxi licensing system stems from “worse” problems but ignoring this problem since “relatively harmless” just makes it worse, like black market baby formula when the stores run out.

  54. Berlin
    March 30th, 2009 at 20:22 | #54

    cephaloless, you have put it better than anything that I could have said about the problem. In Chinese there is a phrase called “千里之堤,溃于蚁穴”(A dam a thousand miles long can break down just because of a couple of tunnels dug by ants”. The black market taxis, or a couple of cases of a contaminated milk, can lead to a much more massive problem if they are not solved promptly. I think most of us Chinese are way too tolerant about social ills. We kept quiet until babies have been killed or when there are strikes going on everywhere, or when reporters discovered migrant workers were treated like modern slaves in coal mines. And then, someone (very likely from the very top) bang on the table and say: “How could this have happened?”

    Remember how the involuntary imprisonment for vagabounds (I don’t know a better word for it “shou rong zhi du”) ended? Till someone reported that a college graduate student 孙志刚 were beaten to death after being housed in the facility as a “bum”. Then, people started to realize that there is a problem. As a matter of fact, the problem has existed for years. It keeps piling up, till there is a “tipping point” .

    Do we always have to wait till somebody has died till we owe up to the problems?

  55. Wahaha
    March 30th, 2009 at 20:39 | #55



    That is why Chinese government put on censorship on internet. I am not calling you 蚁, but there are lot of 蚁 out there.

    The problem is that government, either democracy or authoritarian, cant tell who are 蚁 and who are not 蚁.

  56. Berlin
    March 30th, 2009 at 20:47 | #56

    Haha, I think of myself more along the lines of being a woodpecker.

  57. Wahaha
    March 31st, 2009 at 20:17 | #57


    here is a link I used before , I like to use it again to show what 蚁 are


    The commotion over the building of a dam over the Narmada River in the western Indian state of Gujarat hogged the headlines in India over the past few weeks. Medha Patkar, activist and leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada movement), went on a 20-day fast to protest the government’s failure to come to the aid of an estimated 500,000 villagers who have lost their livelihood as a consequence of the Sardar Sarovar dam, which will supply electricity to Gujarat state.

    Medha Patkar, the activist, is one of those 蚁 I talked about.

    Think of that, would India government ( funny, the government elected by people) give an unfair offer that made 500,000 unhappy ? can you imagine a people’s governement failed to give a reasonable offer in 20 years ? It is more likely that only couple of hundreds at most were unhappy, but how come half a million people went on to protest ?

    The answer is that some 蚁 were there stirring the pot. and cuz of this SEVERAL 蚁, half of million of people were fooled to join the protest, and as the result, TENS OF MILLIONS of poor people couldnt get electricity, and their lives couldnt be improved.

    That is one of the reasons that I am willing to tolerate the repression in China, yes, I mean repression, at least for now. cuz the potential damages by those 蚁 are too much for China.

    The other reason is that I dont believe free media can solve the biggest problem Chinese peopel concerned, like corruption. Remember those school building that collapsed during earthquake. here is another link to prove my point ( I dont even talk about political corruption) :


    At the moment, the village was not lacking for money for its school. The state had committed $15,000 to construct a new school building, $900 for a new kitchen and $400 for new school benches. But only some of the money had arrived, so no construction had started, and the school committee chairman said he was not sure how much local officials might demand in bribes. The chairman’s friend from a neighboring village said $750 had been demanded of his village committee in exchange for building permits.

  58. Steve
    March 31st, 2009 at 21:36 | #58

    @ berlin, cephaloless & Uln: My experience with black taxis has been in airports, where they try to hustle you for rides before you get to the official taxi line. There is no wait but you pay more and may pay far more. The official taxi during busy times will take far longer to get but is fair most of the time, though lately I’ve had to jump on a few taxi drivers in Beijing for trying to rip me off. Once I confront them, they give me the correct fare and laugh about it like it’s a kind of test.

    In general, taxis in China need to be regulated more than they are now. Too many are unscrupulous, and many don’t know the city very well. I can remember a few times where I had to give the driver directions to where I wanted to go because he or she had no idea. Also, too many try to take you on the ‘scenic route’ but when I call them on it, they usually forgive the fare, though I always paid them the fair amount if they had taken the shortest route.

    Black taxis exist because the government allows them to exist. If the government wanted to shut them down, it’d be done tomorrow. Therefore, I have to conclude that there is a need for them or else they are paying a ‘backdoor’ fee to stay in business.

  59. berlinf
    April 1st, 2009 at 19:46 | #59

    Wahaha, I am not sure if repression is a good answer even for now. Of course no ruler wants to see their authority challenged. Would the British government have liked Ganhdi’s activism? Probably not. But Ganhdi had to do what urged him to do. The lesson that he taught all of us is that a government should not be doing what works or what seems to be convenient (having everybody singing praises of harmony, or allowing some black market taxis to exist), but what is right. Otherwise, just let different interests groups fight each other out and see who survives, in the names of free market, social Darwinism, etc.

  60. HJG
    April 27th, 2009 at 04:51 | #60

    To become a real great nation, shanzhai culture should not be encouraged. It only leads to second-best or even worse products.

    Here again I must sigh and say, “You guys REALLY don’t get it”

    From the technical point of view, concept is called “you don’t reinvent the wheel”. Yes, Chinese people buy products, take them apart, figure out how they work, put them back and make copies. It’s called learning. That’s what you do in college. Learning Newton never stopped Einstein from figuring out relativity, and learning Bohr never stopped anyone from smashing hadrons together. Chinese spend significant resources on R&D, and yes, R&D includes taking other people’s stuff apart and figuring out how they work. If you see a good idea, why not use it? Like I said, you don’t reinvent the wheel. And for all those feeling righteous and indignant, it is well known that US/EU sanction technology exports to China, so you guys are covered (to what extent sanction is good for).

    But the bulk of shanzhai culture is not about technology, it’s about, well, as the name implies, society and culture. From a sociological/cultural point of view, it’s about counter distinction making and flattening social classes. Why on Earth does a LV cost $1000 USD a piece and come to symbolize status? I mean, it’s a frigging bag. Why is it that I feel uncomfortable and feel that I do not have the right to walk into a LV store (or a Chanel, Prada, etc store in downtown SF, say)? Why does a frigging bag separates people into distinct groups? It’s annoying! The value of LV is in its associated social status, so Shanzhai culture is a proletarian effort against the establishment of such a consumption status. I personally find it absolutely AMAZING that every girl gets to wear a LV. Now THAT is socialism 😛

    As for pirated music and movies… Well, I have no defense against that, other than the fact I do it too along with everybody in the world, not just Chinese 😛

    Actually, Chinese people are a lot more creative with pirated music and movies too: Shanzhai culture in this sense means a SPOOF or some sort of fan extension of the original, NOT the piracy itself. Piracy culture =/= shanzhai culture.

    Try to dig a little deeper rather than the typical assumptions.

    And I agree with Shane that the IP is a rather useless idea, a law that will never be followed, and not necessarily good for society.

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