I cringed the first time I saw a building product manufacturer chase Chinese people out of a trade show booth. His voice trembling with anger, the manufacturer explained that the Chinese were taking pictures of his products, with the intention of making knockoffs. What appeared on the surface to be the blatant prejudice of a Western businessman was actually a blatant violation of Western business ethics by the Chinese.
Since that encounter, almost a year ago, I've made a habit of asking North American and European manufacturers about their experiences with their Chinese counterparts. The responses have been astonishingly bitter, way beyond typical griping about competitors. It seems that China has progressed from pirating Prada bags and DVDs of blockbuster movies to copying building products, materials, and systems. One U.S. lighting company saw a Chinese copy of its latest fixture come to market just weeks after the original's debut.
Granted, in a global marketplace, it's important to make allowances for differences between cultures. The Western standard of unbridled progress runs counter to China's long cultural history of building on precedent. For instance, one of the six core principles of Chinese painting, as defined by 5th century critic Xie He, was “Transmission by Copying.”
Even in this light, there's a vast difference between advancing ideas that are in broad circulation and the outright theft of intellectual property. As Hollywood and the fashion industry have learned, to their financial detriment, Beijing is hardly steadfast in its commitment to the World Intellectual Property Organization, the United Nations' regulatory body for intellectual property. After all, why should the world's fastest-growing economy kowtow to regulations designed to protect U.S. and European businesses?
It would be unfair to label all Chinese building products as knockoffs or all Chinese manufacturers as thieves. In “Enter the Dragon” (page 19), Ernest Beck reports on the growing quality of Chinese building products. The longer China participates in the global economy, the more pressure it will feel to play by the rules, both written and unwritten. Someday, perhaps sooner than we expect, “Made in China” will mean something positive.
Editor in Chief