Real and the fake tightly intertwined

04:06, Dec 15 2011

"Protect intellectual property rights" blares the conspicuous red banner outside Beijing's Silk Market. "Be law-abiding vendors" it implores.

The banner doth protest too much, methinks. It doesn't help that it's situated at a market where everything is about as authentic as Fred and Myrtle's pauas sitting in the Canterbury museum.

The Silk Market is just one of many in Beijing that does a roaring trade in cheap, low-quality knockoffs of Western brands. Inside you'll find a swarm of aggressive vendors bargaining hard with swarms of generous foreigners fresh off the plane or the tour bus parked outside.

Since it does a roaring trade seven days a week, it's gained the attention of multinationals which see their potential sales reduced and their brand quality compromised. Those companies have initiated legal action, but to no avail. Intellectual property rights is a concept not yet embedded in the legal system and there's no political incentive to crack down: China's black market is so huge that millions of livelihoods depend on it.

Outside the upmarket Sanlitun shopping mall, fake DVDs go for less than $2 apiece.

"Antique" markets do a roaring trade with foreigners thinking they have just landed the bargain of the century for an authentic Ming Dynasty vase, complete with dust.


Near my university, peddlers hock the latest bestselling books, with a particular focus on bad American self-help books which you can pick up for $2 a piece or $5 if you're a newbie. Either way, that's probably too much to pay for advice from Dr Phil.

The fakes even extend to otherwise reputable supermarkets. Across China, Zespri battle sophisticated rings which peddle inferior product under the Zespri brand. Even my local supermarket has a Chinese company passing off the Zespri logo as their own.

Given its magnitude, the trade in fake goods has been raised at the highest levels. During President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States in January, after China acceded to US demands to (slightly) revalue its currency, the debate moved to stamping out intellectual property fraud. So far, little progress.

But while most visitors eagerly lap up the cheap knock-offs in the Silk Market, there are more serious implications afoot for forgery consumers, most notably from fake alcohol.

By fake alcohol I'm not talking about those pre-mixed vodka drinks the kids are drinking these days. Rather, I'm talking about the alcohol that is made with inferior ingredients and isn't distilled, leaving a rather toxic concoction to on-sell to bars for a quick buck.

It's a knock-off that can really knock you off your feet (and potentially make you blind), and it can strike almost anywhere, especially since some bars think they're buying the real deal.

So while students have been known to hit bars known to be sloshing with fake booze – a 50 kuai ($10) cover charge can get you into an all-you-can-drink bar for the night – even up-market bars aren't immune from dodgy liquor.

Many an expat has been laid low in some of Beijing's swankiest establishments – and they remain steadfast in their position that their sore head resulted from the quality and not the quantity.

One seasoned Kiwi drinker found himself barely conscious on the floor of a bar's bathroom after just three cocktails. His next day wasn't that much better either. (No, Mum, it wasn't me).

The worst fake I've come across has to be the money. Withdrawing my hard-earned money from the cash machine is a sufficiently demoralising prospect without getting stuck with fake currency while I'm at it.

The kicker was that it wasn't even the same size as regular currency. You think if you're going to go to the trouble of forging notes, you'd at least get the size right.

Then again, you'd also think the bank's systems wouldn't accept such irregularly sized money, let alone spit it out from an ATM.

The worst part was that it cost me 20 bucks; I could have picked up a cheaper souvenir at the Silk Market. Sam Mackay is a Southlander who is studying Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University.

Earlier this year a blog by an American woman living in Kunming about the presence of fake Apple stores in China hit world headlines.

These fake Apple stores abound in China. They have all the appearance of an Apple store, but you can just tell that something doesn't add up – often from afar, though some stores seem so authentic that even the staff think they're working for the actual Apple company.

I've seen fake Apple stores right across China – and even in Lhasa. So I suspect the monks I saw walking around with iPhones weren't actually using the authentic product.