Nation of Imitators

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2m 53sec

President Barack Obama has endorsed a Chinese knockoff cell phone. Or so a manufacturer named “Harvard Communications” seems to claim. “This is my Blackberry,” reads a Chinese advertisement bearing the American president’s smiling face, “the Blockberry Whirlwind 9500!”

If a “Blockberry”—or a Nokir, Suny Ericcsun, or Samsing—fails to make you feel like Obama, you can always commission a Chinese architect to build you an imitation White House. Some wealthy Chinese businessmen swear by them: work in the Oval Office and sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Modern China, explains the popular Chinese novelist Yu Hua, is a playground of imitation, mimicry, and outright theft. “We don’t see anything wrong with copycatting Obama,” he explains in this excerpt from his new book, China in Ten Words. “With the exception of the party in power and our current government leaders,” he adds, “everybody else can be copycatted and ridiculed, imitated and spoofed, at will.”

With no outlet for political expression, citizens turn to parody. In a popular Internet send-up of a government news broadcast after Beijing’s slow response to the 2008 powdered milk scandal, a pair of faux anchors straight-facedly explain that the usual crew is in intensive care after consuming contaminated milk.

Copycatting is a good thing when it empowers the voiceless. But it’s also symptomatic of the “moral bankruptcy and confusion of right and wrong” fostered by rapid change in China. And it reflects the tension between China’s closed political system and freewheeling economy, Yu says. “We find ourselves in a reality full of contradictions: conservative here, radical there.” Browse Chinese stores and you’ll find shanzai (“copycat”) cameras, sodas, milk, and laundry detergents. Surf the Web, and you’re sure to stumble upon copycat pop songs and TV shows. The word itself has acquired a strange kind of legitimacy. Yu found a counterfeit copy of his novel Brothers at a stand outside his apartment. “No, it’s not a pirated edition,” the vendor assured him. “It’s a copycat.”

Yu sees the trend in journalism, too. Decades ago, his statements to reporters were always heavily edited by state censors. Now he often reads “interviews I have never given—remarks the reporter has simply concocted.” He once confronted an offending reporter. The journalist’s nonchalant response: “That was a copycat interview.”

Copycatting is not without historical precedent in China. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the Chinese masses wiped away the old set of Communist Party institutions and rigged up revolutionary replacements. “Soon there were too many copycat organizations and too little power to go around,” Yu says. After chaotic infighting, triumphant copycats shed their counterfeit roots and became “official” party leaders.  

Will China, land of Mao (and a Mao copycat contest), somehow lurch forward in spite of the latest copycat craze? Yu isn’t sure. “The social fabric of China today is shaped by a bizarre mixture of elements, for the beautiful and the ugly, the progressive and the backward, the serious and the ridiculous, are constantly rubbing shoulders with each other,” he concludes. “The copycat phenomenon is like this too, revealing society’s progress but also its regression.”