Shanzhai – China’s Knock Off Culture

Yesterday we looked briefly at the way copyrights are ignored in China, and today we will be diving deeper into the fascinating world of Chinese knockoffs.

In China these knockoffs are called Shanzhai, and there are even references to a shanzhai culture. Some of the more well-known products are the “blockburry”, the “A-Pad” and the “O-Phone” (just for fun, a website that sells them).

These devices are often a fraction of the price of the originals, and sometimes they will offer more features. For example an O-phone might be able to use many of the I-phone apps as well as Google Android apps. Other times they might add a camera or some flashing lights (sadly not a joke).

The argument for these products is that many foreign goods are much too expensive for the Chinese market, but that Chinese consumers demand access to them.

Shanzhai products are not even sold with the pretense of being the real deal. In the States these would be sold quietly under the counter, but in China there are marketing campaigns for these devices.


For some reason I doubt Obama received his check from this photo shoot.

In my experience these fakes often fall apart in a few months, like the I-pood mp3 player I bought for $20 in rural China.


Beyond Shanzhai tech there are a huge number of copied clothing brands that copy the original product stitch for stitch. My experience with these is limited to winter jackets (known as NorthFakes) and backpacks. These products are frequently indistinguishable from the original.

I have heard claims that these are sometimes even made in the same factories as the actual product. I’m tempted to believe there is some truth in that, as I have come across jackets with all of the tags you would expect to find, and they are shockingly free of the usual English grammar and spelling mistakes.

Shanzhai can also result in knock off restaurants like those featured in this post on Chinahush. I have eaten at a number of these and they make McDonald’s seem like fine dining.

Recently there have even been complaints of Shanzhai cars. Apparently a few of BYD’s (a Chinese car company) distributors offered a unique service for their customers, replacing all BYD logos with other brand’s logos like Toyota. BYD is trying to downplay this by saying that they don’t control their distributors, but what is surprising is that once the logos are switched it is hard to tell the difference (Several Examples).

Car manufacturers say that the problem is that it is very difficult to copyright every part of every design they make, so legally they can’t do much to stop these Chinese copycats. In the car industry most companies try to make their cars standout in someway, because copying another design would mean admitting someone else is doing a better job than you. In China it means cheap cars for the masses.

Tomorrow look forward to the Nobel Prize winning explanation (unfortunately not mine) that helped me understand the full effects of China’s IPR problems on China’s consumers.

6 responses to “Shanzhai – China’s Knock Off Culture”

  1. Chopstik says:

    I have to tell you that I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post with great anticipation. Today’s post has really whetted my appetite. Chinese knock-offs are, in my opinion, legendary in many places outside of China. Just hit almost any Chinatown in any major North American city and you’re bound to find something.

    And while you’ve covered many of the more tangible items today, I think the real impact lies more with process and design of many of these products. Further, you have not yet really addressed the concerns relating to entertainment IPR (you briefly did cover movies) such as books, music and other art forms. As an occasional artist, I would find this to be an interesting subject all unto itself.

    • Tom says:

      I hope to be able to hit both the economics and the more practical aspects, we will see how productive I am tomorrow. This is one area where I side with business, even though I love the access to movies and music.

  2. […] Yesterday we looked briefly at the way copyrights are ignored in China, and today we will be diving deeper into the fascinating world of Chinese knockoffs. In China these knockoffs are called Shanzhai, and there are even references to a … Continue reading → […]

  3. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  4. […] you’ve read my posts about copyrights in China (here, here and here) you already know about the problems caused by copying, so today we are going to look at […]

  5. […] like a good deal, but is it really? Is the car new, used, or refurbished? Chinese companies like BYD (Build Your Dream) can keep the average consumer guessing. They replaced the sticker on car parts that they built with […]

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