“Faked in China: Rethinking the Nation in Globalization” was an event hosted at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto on 21 September 2016, sponsored by the Dr. David Chu Program in Asia Pacific Studies and co-sponsored by the Asian Institute. This event featured a lecture by Professor Fan Yang from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Media and Communication Studies department. The event was moderated by Professor Tong Lam from the University of Toronto’s History Department. Professor Yang is the author of the book Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization, and her talk focused on some of the main claims of the book. Since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China’s participation in globalization has grown increasingly through its role as a manufacturing center. Alongside the growth of Chinese manufacturing, there has also been the emergence of many artifacts “faked in China”, such as knock-off brand clothing or mobile phones. With a focus on the city of Shenzhen, Professor Yang’s talk discussed the rise of counterfeit culture and its implications on the dominant narrative of China’s economic rise.
Professor Tong Lam introduced the talk by explaining the significance of the city of Shenzhen in the discourse of China’s manufacturing based economic growth and the rise of counterfeit culture. Shenzhen has undergone tremendous change since the opening up of China. Narratives of Shenzhen’s exceptional growth describe how it has transformed from a small fishing village with a population of a few hundred thousand, to a mega-city with a population of 20 million. Over the past 40 years, Shenzhen has become the manufacturing and counterfeit center of the world, and increasingly becoming an epicenter of innovation in the technology sector. It is within this context and site of Shenzhen that Professor Yang begins her exploration of the Chinese developmental narrative and globalization.
To begin, Professor Yang explained that it was her personal background of living in Shenzhen during her teen years that brought her to begin this study on “Faked in China”. She expanded on this idea of “Faked in China” by discussing several prominent events that depict China as nation of fabrication. This is best represented by the 2008 Olympics, during which controversy arose from the fact that the footprint fireworks of the opening ceremony were discovered to have been pre-recorded. In addition, the Chinese national anthem was also lip-synced. The central dilemma facing the Chinese government is the struggle to control the image of the nation to the world in live media. The emerging image of “Faked in China” is a concern as it complicates the narrative of China’s economic rise by questioning the aspect of cultural innovation. Thus the government has initiated a policy of upgrading China from a site of manufacturing and copying to a site of creativity and its own intellectual property rights, or from “made in China” to “created in China”.
Professor Yang expanded that this policy was indicative of the grander project of nation branding. The state is attempting to imagine the nation through the brand of Chinese culture. As the state is losing its tie to the nation in the context of globalization and exchange, it needs to reinstate that connection, and the creation of a state-managed intellectual property regime appears as one way to do so.
Second, she argues that countering state efforts to brand the national culture, a form of resistance emerges from counterfeit culture or “shanzhai”. Referencing mountain fortresses set up by rebels, the term “shanzhai” connotes a sense of anti-establishment and embodies a sort of brand for and by the people. The artifact best representing this idea is the proliferation of various counterfeit mobile phones, most of which emerged in Shenzhen. While these phones are copycats of western phones, they are adapted and enhanced based on the needs of local migrant workers who are the main customer base of these cheap phones. Responding to migrant laborers need for long battery life and strong reception as they travel to rural villages, shanzai phones are indeed a brand of the people. In reaction to the rise of counterfeit culture, the state has attempted to make a claim to this process of cultural production through its coverage on CCTV, the state’s official media source. CCTV attempts to depict shanzhai as a brand of the nation while emphasizing the state’s role in protecting consumers from being duped.
Professor Yang highlights the dilemmas and complexities of finding meaning within culture in the relentless speed of globalization and development The talk raised pertinent questions about how academics can enrich cultural studies by looking at counterfeit brands, and examine how everyday people participate in meaning and culture making. As well, she stated that questions about nation branding are not just relevant to China, but can be framed to address issues of cultural identity in the grandiose process of globalization. Professor Yang also argues that looking at how culture is generated in China, and particularly Shenzhen, also allows us to rethink Asia in relation to the global south. Rather than looking at Shenzhen as a place of western cultural imports, we can see how the kinds of products generated within the shanzhai movement have spread and been popularized in countries such as South Africa or India.
To end this highly thought-provoking discussion, Professor Lam reiterated the key arguments of the talk and the notion of using Asia as a site for new ways of understanding processes such as globalization or cultural production. The talk ended with a question and answer session where participants raised questions about comparing the cultural projects of China with other Asian countries such as Japan or South Korea, the implication of the Mao era on Chinese cultural identity, and the role of the state in cultural manufacturing. Overall, this talk presented innovative methods of thinking about culture in a rapidly changing world.
Eden Lee is a 4th Year student majoring in International Relations and Contemporary Asian Studies. She is particularly interested in the East Asian region and its economic and security developments. She currently serves as an Event Reporter for Synergy’s East Asia Section.