News the Chinese leadership intends to spark a major shift to a more market led economy is attracting considerable attention. In doing so, the country’s leadership is widely seen as facing formidable social, cultural and ethical challenges.
Apart from tackling the endemic corruption which so often undermines or obstructs market led solutions, one of the most obvious challenges seldom mentioned in the West, is the unenviable task of dealing with endemic copycatting.
According to prize-winning Chinese author Yu Hua: “Moral bankruptcy and confusion of rights and wrongs lie at the heart of modern China.” This finds particular expression he argues, in the phenomenon widely known there as copycatting.
A more accurate and westernised version is “complete rip offs.”
Within modern China this amoral and damaging cult has somehow acquired widespread acceptance—a dubious kind of respectability.
“Plagiarism, piracy, burlesque, parody slander and other actions, originally seen as vulgar or illegal have been given reason to exist.”
Yu Hua, Chinese commentator 1
This destructive plague of unethical behaviour reportedly pervades almost every aspect of the country’s society. Copycatting is omnipresent in China, and is one of the most commonly used terms in China today.
China’s leadership has the consolation of knowing it is certainly not alone in wondering how to deal with constant and outrageous ripoffs. For example, the present dispute between Apple and Samsung rests entirely on the belief of the former that its Iphone designs have been unscrupulously ripped off by its South Korean competitor.
In the UK, too large a proportion of Dyson’s profits are regularly diverted in trying to stop less fastidiously honest competitors from ripping off its designs and technical advances. Since most vacuum cleaners now look flatteringly like a Dyson, it suggests stopping ripoffs is both costly and often unsuccessful.
If the Chinese leadership genuinely wants to allow more market forces to succeed, it must surely involve changing the culture in which copycatting is hardly even seen as wrong.
Business leaders for example, will need to learn to develop their moral compass, or even find it in the first place and speak up against copycatting and outlaw it within their own organisations.
China’s many social contradictions have provoked “confusion in people’s value systems”. So it is hardly surprising the country regularly appears amongst one of the hardest nations in which to do business and one of the most corrupt. 2
If the desired market forces are indeed to be unleashed, doing something unethical or irresponsible cannot continue to be justified on the highly dubious grounds that it is “merely” copycatting.
1 Yu Hua, Chinese commentator in Ten Words, Duckworth Overlook, 2012
2 In Transparency International’s rankings, China ranks in joint 80th place, with Serbia, Trinidad and Tobago. Previously it ranked 75th out of 183 countries–though the two results may not be strictly comparable.