China Past or Present?

Is China the future or the past? It’s holding a distorting mirror up to the West but nobody has worked out yet what the distortion factor is – does it make us fatter or thinner? Visiting the country only deepens the sense of uncertainty.

In the subway station for the Science and Technology Museum in Shanghai is one of the city’s largest Fake Markets. The stalls, some quite glossy, sprawl in a maze all around the exits at the top of the escalators in an underground mall. Frequent police raids and prison sentences are helping to create an atmosphere of nervousness and somewhat sleazy secretiveness in the markets.

No question that policy in China is being seen to create an official stigma in the fake markets. Signs taped up at the entrance make it clear that fake products are illegal and not sanctioned by the state.  One effect of all this is to reduce the impact of the brand. It becomes commonplace. Stripped of all the marketing sheen and context the brand makers create for it, consumers end up considering the aesthetics on their own terms.

In a very high quality store with brightly lit displays and shiny chrome and glass fittings, a man sells us a Gucci belt that is very high quality, indistinguishable from an original; quite possibly a “night shift” product. These are often products off the same production line as the genuine item. He explains proudly that the police raid the market all the time. They send people to jail for ninety days for selling fakes – unless you pay them off with big money – equivalent to £35k he tells us. He reveals he is a graduate of Beijing University, Business Studies. He has a maimed left hand which he keep deftly hidden. Disfigurement, disability and amputees are more commonplace in China.

I ask one vendor to see some watches and immediately we’re ushered inside the store while the husband furtively closes the door and stands guard outside. The wife lifts the lid on hidden boxes – literally under her counter. Later, she digs deep into piles of clothes that are stacked around the edge of the little store,  to pull out more bags of fakes – Bulgari, Tag Heuer, Breitling, Rolex, Patek Phillipe all the big brands are here in varying qualities of fake – none of these quite good enough to impress.  The replication is not convincing. In fact, these poorer quality fakes end up strengthening the brands.

In a bag store in one corner of the mall, three heavy-set tall Chinese men enter the stall as we are looking at a suitcase full of Louis Vuitton fakes – not very good ones. The women storekeepers gather round, nervously chatting to the men. It is clear that they are uncomfortable,  these guys may be police. Although as long as we are around, as Westerners, it is clear that nothing is going to happen. The young girl who is serving us is trying to encourage us to buy Gucci wallets. The moment we express interest, she ushers us out of the store and, wheeling another fake-stuffed suitcase behind her,  leads us down a side alley through some big service doors out of the public areas of the mall, into a seedy stairwell to show us the Gucci fakes. The quality is higher and she sells eagerly. The sketchiness is intense.

On the walls at the entrance to the fake market, those official posters warning of the illegality of fakes highlight specific brands. One wonders if these are the brands which lobbied loudest.  Official policy is demonstrably being put into practice. And you can see why. At the same time, in downtown Shanghai and Beijing – some of Europe’s and the US’s glossiest brands are the first to populate new high end malls which are currently as impressive for their lack of people as they are for the expense of their flagship brand stores.  They’re there to capture the growth in this burgeoning middle-class market.  Sebastian Huber, the manager of the Montblanc store in Beijing explains that it is the largest of their boutique stores and is performing well for them. The store is decorated by elaborate, state of the art interactive displays featuring prestigious idealised users of the company’s products. John Lennon may never have actually used a Montblanc pen, but he clearly represents the creativity and fame to which  their customers aspire.   At times incongruities occur to Western eyes that don’t seem to trouble the Chinese or indeed  the brand owners. Cartier and Gap are adjacent in downtown Shanghai in a way that would be unthinkable in Bond Street.

The cultural requirement to haggle in markets and even in more formal shops is born of years of private selling and a nation built on trade. But the surreal dislodging of fixed price points throws the genuine economic value of any consumer product into question. In China the seller is closer than anywhere else in the world to the means of production. The high gloss value-add of marketing and positioning achieved by high end brands in the West is stripped away by the circumstances of sale and effectively removed from the equation here.

“You’ve got to haggle” says the storekeeper in the surreal manifesto the Life Of Brian, and this indeed may be the mode throughout Asia, the Middle East and South America. In fact it may only be in Europe and the US that haggling is not the norm. But you do find yourself wondering what is the index of value? What does the price equate to?  As Westerners we’re forced to build down from our inexact sense of a European High Street price. The Chinese seller is by definition, even if they’re selling an original, likely to start from a position way upstream in the value chain, very close to the factory door. By definition it’s wholesale, minus distribution, minus marketing costs – and minus tax!  This is likely to be at most 15% of UK High Street pricing. As for a fake – there the price is completely arbitrary – not unlike the way that value has been eroded from music in the West. When something has virtually only intrinsic cultural value – the price you can ask depends on the culture created for it. So is this legacy of the heavy-handed, unsophisticated Cultural Revolution or the harbinger of the future.   There’s nothing unsophisticated about it. The gloss and roar of Ferrari’s, Porsche’s and Range Rovers is just as common in Pudong as it is in Sloane Square. But sixty kilometres to the south of Shanghai, in Hang Zhou, the students at the highly selective, elite School of Art and Design develop open software artworks, new products that cross platforms, incorporating games, music, animation, graphics. They all co-create, work on each other projects, contribute their different skills. The work is made to be shared. The professor explains, “it’s all open yes, only open”.

In the Chinese language, there is no past or present – only an eternal present to be carefully amended by qualifiers.

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