The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of China Copying Everyone Else

Anyone who knows China well enough can attest to the fact that a lot of what you see in China was taken from elsewhere. That’s why there are high profile cases like the Huawei telecommunications company, which was featured on 60 Minutes - the investigative American TV program – for its alleged role in stealing trade secrets and espionage. But not all of what China has been doing – stealing, copying, imitating, or whatever you want to call it – is a bad thing. In fact, there are some imitations that should even be celebrated.   The question is really about how much should be celebrated vs. condemned.

The Good

You may be wondering what the picture above represents. Last month, NBC reported this:

 Women of true beauty do not reveal their teeth when they are smiling, according to a traditional Chinese adage.

Not anymore, one government bureau has decided.

During a “How to Smile” course organized by the Dalian Port Inspection Station in China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, customs officers were given the strange assignment of holding a chopstick between their teeth as they grinned.

“The purpose is to perfect their smiles,” Zhang Tianbao told NBC News. Zhang, the political officer in charge of the Dalian station, said that seeing one’s pearly whites was imperative to a beautiful smile. “The best result is that they can show eight teeth while they are smiling,” he said.

The article explains that this kind of education has been going on for several years, and you can be sure there was a lot of extra attention given for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. But the thing that I believe deserves celebration is the simple reason why they are doing this in the first place. “China is part of the international world,” Tianbao said. “We change our traditional culture so that the international world will understand that we’re friendly.”

Being able to change something as deeply routed in the cultural identity as non-verbal communication is a relatively big step. This is why I’m happy to see them embrace another culture like this. I’m not sure if the number of teeth (eight) is anything more than an arbitrary number, as Westerners – whom the Chinese are trying to facially imitate – are not given any such instruction themselves. But for some reason, they believe that this will make them appear more friendly, and I think it’s an admirable thing to do.

The Bad

China has had its history with stealing not only ideas and concepts but also full-scale projects. In 2009, they watched the unveiling of the massive 18-meter Gundam (a character from a very classic Japanese television series), and just one year later, they came out with their own version of the same thing. The most egregious thing about that was that they had the gall to say that the “robot is completely our designer’s original,” and that they had never even heard of a Gundam. In truth, they looked almost exactly the same until a year later, the Chinese one was “revamped” with some ornaments and spikes.

But that was all small-scale compared to the billion-dollar project that China hoped to be another major tourist attraction. Instead of encouraging Chinese people to explore the international horizon and become more worldly, they have decided to bring the world to China.

Specifically, $940 million (USD) were spent bringing the site of one of Austria’s most picturesque villages to China. Well, not exactly “brought to China” so much as “made in China.”

Indeed, the entire village was copied, and some Austrians are not pleased about it. One resident said “I don’t think that it is a good idea. Hallstatt is just unique with its culture and traditions. You cannot copy that.” However, others are viewing the clone as an unexpected positive, considering that the annual number of Chinese tourists to Hallstatt increased from about 50 in 2005 to thousands in the last few years.

Pictured above: UNESCO World Heritage-site “Hallstatt”
Pictured below: Chinese clone

I don’t see the point of having its citizens learn how to communicate with Westerners if they’re so motivated on keeping citizens in the country that they keep making knock-offs of everything on the outside. But who knows? With a country of its size (let alone population) – not to mention the fact that it is not a free society – you never know who is in charge of doing what. Some may be in charge of taking ideas from abroad, while others are in charge of appealing to the West.

Which brings me to…

The Ugly

Ohh, they’ve done it again. After one Iranian news agency recently cited an article that said Americans prefer Ahmadinejad over Obama, The Onion is in the news again.

The satirical news website was cited recently by Chinese media, who reprinted a piece on Kim Jong Un being what Americans called the “sexiest man alive.” KXLY reports:

China, as one Twitter user wrote Tuesday, has been fooled by the “mysterious Western art of satire.”

The merciless comedy website The Onion has declared North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the “sexiest man alive for 2012.” And it appears China’s People’s Daily Online has taken the story seriously.

[. . .] The Chinese story reprinted satirical comments describing Kim’s “air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side,” his “impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and,” the story says, “that famous smile.”

The story on People’s Daily Online on Tuesday illustrates the mutual backscratching that China and North Korea exercise through their government-run media. The incident also shows foreign media outlets’ difficulty in navigating The Onion’s brand of satire.

The Chinese website had underscored its story by including its own 55-page photo gallery to accompany the text, which was published in both English and Chinese. But the pages and the images were no longer available Wednesday.

A woman responding to a call Wednesday to the office of the website said it was “impossible that the People’s Daily will quote from any unreliable media — we do verify our news and sources.”

[. . .] “I love this one,” Onion editor Will Tracy told CNN. “It has a certain delightfulness to it.” [. . .] This prank, he said with obvious glee, may turn out to be the legendary Onion fake story that veterans will talk about for years to come. “We essentially just fooled the government of China.”

Previous Onion winners of the Sexist Man Alive distinction include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, American fraudster Bernie Madoff, the Koch brothers, Ted Kacynsky, and T. Herman Zweibel. So this isn’t exactly the intellectual property theft that China is becoming known across the world for… but they did take the words of a satirical article for more than it’s worth. But is that really surprising?

Yes and no. China – like Japan, and most East Asian countries – does not have a rich history of satire. However, in the past decade, there have been various satirical pieces on Chinese microblogs and elsewhere on the internet. Despite the Chinese government’s attempt to suppress satire, it’s not always possible. After all, it’s hard enough for them to even recognize it. But when the satire they recognize is a criticism towards the state, it usually ends in capital punishment for the satirist, if history is any indication. And before you think that Chinese people fall for satire too easily, Beijing Cream notes that it wasn’t too long ago when Americans believed an equally bizarre and bogus story about Chinese people viewing Kate Winslet’s breasts in 3D.

In April, MSNBC, E! Online, Mail Online, Hollywood Reporter, etc. all fell for a satirical quote attributed to China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, and embarrassed themselves precisely because they ran the quote as fact, failing to cite its origin. (In other words, these outlets did one less thing than People’s Daily, which at least cited “The Onion.”) A clever Chinese netizen had written on a satirical website that SARFT censored Kate Winslet’s boobs because it was concerned about Titanic 3D viewers “reach[ing] out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt[ing] other people’s viewing.”

The quote eventually found its way to director James Cameron, who told it to Stephen Colbert (“This is true, you can’t make this up,” he gushed). So for everyone commenting that the Chinese have no sense of humor and don’t understand satire, please remember: the Chinese successfully trolled James frickin’ Cameron.

I’m not going to go along with the assertion that James Cameron is some infallible intellectual, but they do make a good point. Also in the article is their argument that sourcing and citations are absolutely necessary for journalism. – a perfectly reasonable thing to say – which is why I was so surprised with their most recent article entitled “Unicorn Lair Reconfirmed, Says North Korea State Media.”

[Update: Incidentally, the article I criticized here for being contradictory was intentionally done that way. See the comments below.]

The first thing written is “Ha ha! Western media, you got GOT. Unicorns! Ha ha, you totally fell for the Korean Central News Agency’s satire. Yeah, you did. You totally did.” This is followed by a quote from what’s obviously a bogus story from a Korean website about how archeologists discovered a unicorn. They go on to say “And you thought People’s Daily looked bad recently. You got fooled by a FABLE.” However, to the contradiction of their earlier article, there are no citations or sources… because there was no Western media fooled by the story. So let’s just agree that no one is immune to satire, and considering all the crazy things we know to be true, it’s only natural that we believe in some fake things.

But seriously, China… use a little intuition. If there was ever going to be a “sexiest man alive” who so happened to be a short, pudgy, Korean guy… it certainly wouldn’t be Kim Jong Un. Not a chance.

It would be PSY. And he would win that distinction Gangnam Style.

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2 Responses to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of China Copying Everyone Else

  1. Tao says:

    Hi, thanks for linking. The unicorn piece was written in the farcical first-person perspective of a North Korean propagandist.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Tao, thanks for the comment!
      Thanks for letting me know – I edited the article.
      Actually I’m very relieved to hear it, because I like your site. Just stumbled on it, but I’ll be coming back.

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