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Culture of Copy

The money quote from Bianca Bosker, the Author of Original Copies, in an interview with the WSJ China Real Times Reporter James T. Areddy:


“In the West there is a sense that copy is very taboo. It’s a terrible thing. It’s a sign of a lack of imagination.

“In China, copy doesn’t have the same stigma. You can have a copy and it can be a sign of technological achievement and cultural achievement and it’s not inferior.

“It’s not to say that originality is not prized; it’s to say you can copy something and that it can retain – more so than we think in the West – character and essence of the original. Likewise, to copy something can actually be to show mastery of something, both figuratively and literally. I talk about the imperial landscape where rulers would replicate the kingdoms of conquered people within their own domain to show their superiority.”

The author is specifically talking about architecture but the cultural mentality applies to manufacturing as well.

For years now, I’ve been trying to help smart people (with MBA’s and lots of experience) understand just why their NDA’s and other expertly written contracts continue to fail with China suppliers.  They look at the words on the paper and can’t understand what went wrong.  They always come back with “we followed the law” or “our relationship is so valuable they’d never do XXX,” or something of the sort.  To be honest, they are likely right on both accounts, they did it the “right” way and their relationship is very valuable.  But that’s not all that is going on.

As much as we’d like to think that everyone speaks the same language (money), there are often many other factors involved in decisions that contracts and straight-forward business deals don’t account for; not the least of which being cultural demands (that most westerners don’t even know they don’t know about) and even more money (from other deals that you’re specifically not being told about).

Probably the biggest barrier that I have in working with western companies is the belief that “culture doesn’t really matter that much” when compared to legal contracts, money, etc.  I partially agree.  You must have all your legal ducks in a row BEFORE you start working with a Chinese manufacturer (or any one, for that matter).  And you definitely need to run the numbers on both your investment and the investment (time/money/opportunity cost) of your supplier in China as well.  BUT when you’re doing all of this you must realize that even the very idea of “doing business” likely does not mean the same thing to you as it does to you Chinese counter part.  As I’ve said many times before, for most Chinese win/win is a panda bear, not a business philosophy.  Sure the business offices look the same, the books (the copies you see) look the same, the software is the same (although it’s a copy too), the suits are the same and you’re likely all speaking English too.   But the motivations, the responsibilities, the opportunities, the goals and the perceptions of who you are, what the deal means, who should get what, your ethnicity and country’s history with China, etc. are all definitely NOT the same.

The point being, just because you’re dealing with an MBA in a suit in English in an office in Shenzhen does not mean that you have anything in common whatsoever–especially your motivations and values.  To reduce your relationship down to signatures on a paper after chatting on line a few times and now meeting for the first time means that you’ll likely not get what you want this time around AND that you’ll be missing out on so many other opportunities to make money (and friends) in the future as well.

If knowing really is half the battle (thanks, Joe) then knowing who you’re working with (read: their cultural baggage) is or should be one of the most important parts of due diligence that you do when working overseas.

On a related note, here’s some background on what your Chinese counter-part is likely most worried about right now. H/T Dan Harris at China Law Blog.

- See more at: http://silkroadintl.net/blog/2013/01/16/culture-of-copy/#sthash.CBpWSjur.pAlwYtZp.dpuf


David Dayton is the owner of Silk Road International and currently lives full-time in Shenzhen, China. He speaks English, Thai and Mandarin and has worked in Asia for more than 15 years. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at www.silkroadintl.net.

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