Most Americans, even ones that have never been to China, know the prevalence of counterfeit goods（known in Chinese as 山寨产品 or “mountain village products”) on the Chinese market. Those of us that have been here have seen it on a daily basis: phone buyers have to beware of accidentally buying a Nokir, Samsing, or Suny-Ericcsun phone, sports apparel stores are full up with Naike, Hike, Like, and Nilce products. Even Chinese brands aren’t safe: try telling the difference between identically designed products from 康师傅 and 康帅傅 or 脉动 and 脉劫. The word mountain village was originally appropriated to express the concept of knock-off goods because it conjures up images of poverty, small-scale production, and geography that makes imposing the rule of law difficult. It was first used in this way in the 1970s, primarily in Cantonese, but quickly permeating into Mandarin as the phenomenon spread.
Intellectual Property issues have been a thorn in the side of western entrepreneurs for decades, but Chinese take a more nuanced view towards the counterfeit industry. In a country where copying has historically been seen as a way to learn from the masters, some people prefer to focus on the potential long-term benefits to the economy that can be attained by learning to make top end products. The sociologist Ai Jun has even argued that copycatting is a necessary stage in the development of a market economy. Others see it as a hotbed for innovation: the periodical New Weekly wrote “grassroots, adaptable, open, innovative and low-cost, anti-authoritarian, anti-monopolist, anti-mainstream — these are the hallmarks of the mountain village economy.” Perhaps above all, it is egalitarian — making modern conveniences and luxuries available to a far wider audience while creating economic opportunities for people otherwise excluded from the system. Whether or not this view is correct will be put to the test in the next decade as China continues its efforts to transition to making higher quality consumer goods. Until then, stay alert to avoid accidentally buying an aPad the next time you’re in the electronics market.