Why does China Copy Designs?

This post started as an interesting discussion in another post, when a Design Sojourn reader wondered why China suffers from this syndrome of copying product designs from the West. I’m no expert on this but having work with Designers and Vendors from China, as well as frequent trips there, I like to give my take on this issue.

Firstly I need to say I am not trying to defend China nor give any excuse on this issue. This is because the reasons are rather largely due to cultural factors. In the end I would like to see this post as bridging the cultural gap between the East and West, by hopefully allowing both sides to understand each other better.
Now let’s jump right in.
When I deal with China on the design front, this copying issue becomes a whole other ball game. For one, the reality of enforcement is not easy, possible to do, but not easy. In particular for the medium to smaller Chinese companies where funding is “limited”, I have to work out design strategies that actually deal with and possibly counter this issue. In reality many companies don’t even worry about protecting their designs as it’s a zero sum game in their mind. I’ll explain a little more about this later.
With the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, things are starting to change but in reality the mindset is so ingrained in the culture it will be difficult to change.

1) Top down living
Don’t forget despite all the changes in China, it’s still a Communist country with a Capitalistic business system. Special Economic Regions I think they are called. However in reality it’s still a very top down managed country, a big brother approach to the culture, and a huge disparity in the rich and poor. Everyone is answerable to the person above him and “thinking out of the box” is not encouraged.
As a result many take a safe approach towards things, and this has a far reaching implications.

2) Business decisions are about justified returns
In China almost everything is a business decision. When you grow up in a country where life is cheap, things do get brutal and money talks. There is no area for the softer aspects of the business, like branding, experience and emotive products etc. These things are intangible and hard to justify as many decisions are made using an ROI (Return of Investment) as a base. Money put out equals more money back. It’s the best way to make money, but things start to get very crazy when it goes too far.
Put it this way, its commonly known that Chinese rather spend USD$100/Hr on English lessons than hiring a design consultants. At this time the softer aspects of a business are just not a priority. Want to make money in China? Teach English.
Another example is patents are only taken out for a product if it can be later sold, or licensed for royalties. In other words patents are seen as “offensive” in the East as compared to “defensive” in the West. The viewpoints are actually similar, but there is a subtle difference on how patents are viewed.
This business mindset is also applies to their interesting view that the world is “made from an equal specification”. OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacture) and most Chinese consumer electronics companies belief all products are the same, and its all about taking that product, change its color, tweak a few corners and perhaps its shape and resell it. Why spend money to make it a little different when 90% of it is all the same anyway. Sounds like the West a few decades ago, does it not?

3) Money is not the issue, its the risk factor
This lack of risk taking, wanting justified returns, and ROI focused decisions, often leads Chinese consumer electronics companies down the path of copying a successful designs (such as the iPod). It’s logical if you think about it, though it’s not really the right thing to do.
Also if you look back in history, it’s no different from the post-war Industrial Age of Japan’s move of taking Western designs and improving on it. China borders have just open up and the softer aspects of design and branding, they have yet to grasps, but not for long.
Oh don’t get me wrong. This is not always an issue about money. The larger companies especially have the money and are willing to buy design. However there is neither risk management nor contingency plans for introducing a product to the Market that bucks the consumer trend.
I once consulted and worked with a Chinese company that spend a boat load of money engaging Luigi Colani to do some design work for them. They related to me it was firstly hell working with famous designers, and secondly the final design they received was nice but so radical that they could not risk the tooling investment to launch it. They also felt that the market could not stomach a product of such a visual nature. Perhaps they made a wrong choice by using Colani for their brand, but I think you see my point.

4) Master Apprentice and student, and the learning system at large
There are some Joint Ventures with western companies in China, but in general copies you see are really just copies. Personally I think, this whole activity stems from their cultural background and the way Art and Design has been taught through out the ages in China.
Chinese Apprentice artists seek and hope to be taken in (ie looked after) for many years of study under a “Master”. Under tutorledge of the Master Artist, the student then follows or emulates the Master’s style and process. Therefore the master imparts his style to that student, leaving very little for external thought or exploration. Kinda like that 132 moves of the crane, crouching tiger hidden dragon jazz. This is also very much like in Europe during the Renaissance era, where students seek masters as they truly believe are that best at what they want to do.
Fast forward to today, this is also similar to (i dare say) most design schools in China where students come from a rote learning high school background and are thought to follow instead of think. At school they look to famous designers and architects as examples, and their work naturally becomes very thematic or contain the safest forms of expression. Furthermore it is expected that Schools focus on technical skills instead to thinking skills, as learning about creativity is about following a set way of doing things.
Take a look at this quotation from Core 77, it follows along the same line of thinking.

INQUISITIVE ADVANTAGE. However, even as schools pop up, few have evolved from a classical focus on aesthetics and products to embrace design thinking and research of the nature that HK Polytechnic promotes. The best Asian schools provide students with first-rate technical skills, but their graduates leave without the ability to work across disciplines or to use design strategically. They’re not about to do much business model innovation, for example. Much of this may be attributed to Asian education systems from primary school on, which still tend to stress repetition over independent thinking. Says Justice: “The U.S. has a quick advantage. We grow up asking questions. This carries over into our advanced education. They don’t have that in China, and it will take them years to develop that mindset.”

5) Consumers not brand conscious
Many companies also copy because the vast majority of many Chinese consumers are not brand conscious but form conscious. If they like a look or form, its not too difficult to guess that the next decision is not brand but price. Thats why many companies were falling all over themselves to get into China. A fertile ground of untapped minds that have no preconceived notion of a brand except that “foreign is good”. Fortunately of late, Branding (LV, Alessi and Apple etc.) in China has become very successful with people shunning copies, however it’s still a difficult process and there are many mindsets to change.
The Chinese consumer’s values and what is important to them are so different to us, we cannot even begin to imagine.

6) Willing to learn and improve and are copying to learn
Now comes to the most frightening part of my discussion. China has realized that they are actually very far behind the rest of the world under the rule of the Communist styled government. However with their borders now open, their have a ZEAL and hunger to learn bordering on fanatical. All this is so that they can catch up with the West whom they look towards as a place of a better life. What took the West to develop through their industrial/information age, is taking China 1/5 of the time, and perhaps even quicker.
Similar to Japan, copying is only the first step. Once they learn about the inner workings of how things are done the sky’s the limit. One of my ex-colleagues recounted a story about a Chinese Manufacturer proudly showing him a 100% perfect copy of a German MRI machine at 1/10 of the price and a large contract with all the local hospitals. AN MRI MACHINE! Think about this for a moment.

Unfortunately many western companies fall off their rockers when their products are copied and react accordingly. I don’t blame them.
However, in Chinese culture, its really about the fact that “copying is the greatest form of flattery”. Trust me, they do not waste their time copying the market failures. They copy who they think the market leaders are and only to learn how they got where they are. There are also many equally horrible stories of Joint Ventures going sour when the Chinese partner runs off after learning all he needs to know.
Therefore getting them to change is more about changing something so ingrained in the culture, and is almost impossible to do quickly. However the West’s tendency of focusing on this copying issue is really looking at the trees instead of the forest, as China will quickly move past this stage and start to create their own innovations very quickly. As it is companies such as Lenovo and Haier are already in the forefront of this new design movement. So I do suggest that companies get over the copying issue quickly, and look ahead and focus on their market positioning, branding, and strategic thinking.
Edit: I’m always an optimist at heart and tend to see the good in people more often than not. In this discussion, though slightly positive, there are always exceptions to the rule. I do know that there are manufacturers in China who knowingly copy just to ride the wave for the sole purpose of making a quick buck. These are also same many factories in China that close down daily. Fortunately for me, as a design consultant then, I never had to deal with them and probably never will.

  • samuel welsh

    June 23, 2010 at 1:01 am Reply

    keep your products safe and do not buy from china

  • Seny

    May 8, 2010 at 5:29 am Reply

    An interesting article. But don’t you think that perhaps china lacks a design culture because it lacks a culture to begin with? I mean, the Mao and the communists did their damnedest to destroy Chinese culture. Arts, poetry, temples, nothing was safe. Artists, history teachers, basiclly anyone who knew anything was kill with they took over.

  • DT

    March 11, 2008 at 11:25 am Reply

    Hi Digby,
    Thanks for your insightful comments and for stopping by.

  • Digby

    March 10, 2008 at 3:24 am Reply

    My partner and I have designed a brand new household product – there is nothing like it on the market.
    We are very worried about Chinese companies seeing it and then copying it.
    What can we do about it? We have applied for a New Zealand patent.
    In reality most of the replies forgot to mention that the main reason Chinese companies copy is because they can produce the products at much lower costs, due to their very low wage costs and the lack of regulations, health, safety etc and their undervalued currency.
    If these costs were the same in China as in the western world they would not copy as many products.
    New Zealand

  • Design Translator

    May 23, 2007 at 7:02 pm Reply

    I think there are alot of issues here that can and do apply globally. I hope this article can allow us all to talk about it, actually see that we are all no different, and its not an us vs. them discussion.
    Thanks to all commenters for taking their time to add to the knowledge pool.
    Please keep in touch all of you.

  • Heyuti

    May 23, 2007 at 12:46 pm Reply

    I think u have got some good points above, trying to analyse the reason for copying in China. Yes the risk of introducing new products is an obvious point. It happens in a lot of places! Try getting some Singapore companies to invest in radical products and they probably tell you that the fact that it is not done yet meant that it can’t be done. Those were exact words a client told me. If you were to think about it. What China is doing is copying some successful products and re-marketing it at a more afordable rates. Hmm I kinda see similarity in the works of ikea! Ikea does it by re-looking at the manufacturing process and materials subsitution. China did it by optimising returns on manufacturing! Reproducing at cheaper rates definitely offer less risk than innovation. As a designer i obviously do not agree with their way of doing things. Look at it from another perspective and you start wondering is that considered re-designing? Maybe not so in aesthetic manner but definitely in the process.
    The next point will be their education system. Once again i agree with that statement. I happened to have quite a few experience staying in China. And i can see the way they study, from their primary school to univeristy. The way hey learn is to recite the whole day. From young you learn by reciting, reading, remember and reproduce what you learn. It is no difference from pure memorizing. In university teachers actually encourage students to copy and not innovate. I actually heard a teacher telling his students that he should go ahead with his design that looks like those in the market because it is already in the market and thus something must be right about it. I also realised that they do not actually have a problem with taking ideas from one another. But as usual we can always point our fingers to the education systems to find fault ya? When a child is misbehaving, it must meant the parents are not teaching him the correct values ha.
    My question now is sometimes (in fact i have seen a lot) designers have this ego to do things differently, for the sake of being different. So much so that we have lots of rubbish in this market. So is innovation and being different always right? If our pride permits us to learn from the best and innovate from there, it probably can be good for the end user as well.

  • Mac Oosthuizen

    May 21, 2007 at 11:58 pm Reply

    Nice article with good incite. It’s interesting how the western world’s design education is getting criticized for not being technical enough, while at the same time China is getting criticized for being too critical and not teaching design thinking. I’m currently a student in the UK and all I ever hear is how companies are complaining about the students who can’t draw, who can’t communicate to a high enough standard, and it’s true, just have a scroll through Coroflot.
    There’s a general trend of good design thinking and bad communication in the west but good communication and bad thinking in the east (pretty generalised I know). If the development of the Chinese as thinkers is faster than the development of the West to reinstall a level of technical proficiency then we may end up with a world of design thinkers with not enough technical skill and knowledge or experience to create what we design. Excuse the thinking out loud.

  • drew kora

    May 18, 2007 at 8:32 pm Reply

    Great response DT. A note about us in America…yes, fortunately these days design is valued more and companies will take the risks. Design is just the cost of doing business…you have to pay to play.
    However, we still have a ways to go. Internal creative departments are still frequently understaffed and when cut-backs need to be made, in-house design teams and external consultants are frequently on the chopping block (note: I’m talking more from the standpoint of a print/web design standpoint that product…sorry if I’m muddying up your conversation). Execs figure we can still do the work with fewer people (and we often do because we love the work we do, so we’ll sacrifice ourselves on behalf of a beautiful finished product), whereas they won’t cut back on, oh let’s say the maintenance crew because, as you said in your article, they can clearly quantify that it takes x-amount of people to trim x-amount of bushes, cut grass, etc.
    frustrating business this is.

  • Design Translator

    May 18, 2007 at 7:18 am Reply

    Hi niblettes,
    Thanks for your comments and stopping by it

  • niblettes

    May 18, 2007 at 4:31 am Reply

    Often questions about the lack of original design comming out of China has a value judgement attached to it. This often gives rise to a defensive claim that Chinese design will take over the world, just you wait. This dynamic (which you have avoided wonderfully DT) misunderstands the notion of value.
    There are many many ways to create value. Making a new product that solves a problem in a more efficient way is one way to create value. Making an existing product in greater scale, and with higher quality, faster and cheaper is definately another way and should not be minimized or sneered at.
    One is no better than the other. The Chinese economy happens to be optimized for one which makes it less adept at the other. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
    Why does China copy? Original design isn’t relevant to matters of scale, quality, speed and cost. That question misses the whole point.

  • Design Translator

    May 16, 2007 at 7:01 pm Reply

    Hi Jasper,
    Thanks for your feedback and your comments. Please keep in touch!

  • Jasper

    May 16, 2007 at 12:06 pm Reply

    Good post! Im living since 3 years in Shanghai – it’s like disney land! You can have it all if you got the money… then you travel 10 kilometers out of the city an you are in 3rd world country. It’s crazy! History plays an important role to understand this country – i don’t want to get into it, but just imagine China without the “Chairman”. There would be more!

  • Design Translator

    May 15, 2007 at 8:45 pm Reply

    I think so as well, too many people forget we all come from different backgrounds. A little history/culture could improve a better understanding for each other.
    The divide between the rich and poor is going to be a huge problem for China going forward. Many of my friends tell me, the cities do not represent the real China and I should take a trip out of the city to really see it. China needs to somehow mange the wealth of the cities and look after the majority of the poor and improve their standard of living all at the same time.

  • drew kora

    May 15, 2007 at 8:21 pm Reply

    DT this is awesome! As with many things, taking history and culture into consideration sheds a lot of light on the issue. Thanks for researching this and sharing your view. I can definitely see how this could be viewd as a ‘defense’ article, but really it’s just about understanding and perspective.
    In any case you’re right. Once the Chinese learn all they can from copying and have a ‘creative liberation’ of sorts, the products that come from that country will be amazing. I just hope the prosperity from it helps even out the economic situation. (My wife’s father is Chinese…he visted there last year and testified to the fact that there is indeed a huge divide between rich and poor…and outside of the cities things are pretty retchid.)

  • Design Translator

    May 15, 2007 at 1:04 pm Reply

    Hi and thanks for your feedback and for visiting.
    I totally agree with you, the Chinese are now the Nuevo Rich, and anything branded is hot property these days. LV, Carter, B&O, Apple, Nokia are all doing well in China.
    Please keep intouch.

  • China Law Blog

    May 15, 2007 at 12:53 pm Reply

    Very good post, but I definitely think the Chinese are becoming far more brand concious, particularly in the cities. They love Western brands because they view them as a guarantee of quality.

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