Sina Auto, the Chinese media giant’s car site, just released its list of 2015’s best shanzhai car models. The winner? The Land Wing, a near-identical copy of the Range Rover Evoque. The list comes as China says it is embracing true innovation and eliminating shanzhai (山寨), the practice of recreating products that attempt to closely mimic popular brand name products. But in addition to the new list of automobiles, a federal marshal raid at CES suggests otherwise.
Shanzhai literally means “mountain fort,” as in the place bandits used to hide out. The fake Apple Store that was so perfect its employees were fooled into thinking they were working at a real Apple store? That was not shanzhai, it was counterfeit. Shanzhai is when a product blatantly and obviously mimics an original product yet the manufacturers insist it is unique. The practice of shanzhai certainly happens around the world but Chinese manufacturers have made an art out of it.
Sina Auto’s 2015 shanzhai list starts with the cherry, the Land Wing. But there are seven respectable runner-ups. Sina says the Zotye X5 looks very much like a Volkswagen Tiguan. Ironically enough, when the model was first spotted, it featured a Range Rover grille. It should come as no surprise that the Chinese name Zotye (众泰) contains the same character as the Chinese name for Volkswagen (大众).
Zotye is not done though. Other Sina entries include the Zotye Z700 (Audi A6 clone) and the Zotye SR7 (Audi Q3).
Other entries include the Haima Family (Buick) and China luxury automaker Hongqi’s LS5 (Range Rover). Rounding out the list is GAC’s GX6 (Range Rover, again).
Throwing a bit of a twist in at the end, Sina includes on its list the Subaru Legacy, which it suggests might be a copy of China automaker Besturn’s B70 (奔腾B70).
Funny enough, the Sina Auto list is not mocking or disrespectful. Instead, mirroring the attitude of many Chinese consumers, it suggest that shanzhai is just a natural stage in economic development. An addendum to Sina’s list reasons that “the majority of the shanzhai cars are from fourth tier automakers that, to cut development costs and get quickly to market quickly, used a shanzhai shortcut.”
And the defense of shanzhai isn’t coming only from Sina.
In May 2015, The South China Morning Post took a long look at shanzhai and determined that “copycat manufacturers are now pushing the boundaries of innovation.” The SCMP piece argues:
“While the big brands have money, resources, highly skilled design teams and massive market sway, shanzhai has an ecosystem of people collaborating and building on the work of each other. This is an extremely powerful force. It’s estimated that there are 20,000 to 25,000 shanzhai companies operating in Shenzhen alone producing more than 300 million cellphones a year, a quarter of the world’s supply.”
But the move away from shanzhai is not going to be easy. China has ramped up efforts to enforce intellectual property inside its own borders. The State Internet Information Office declared that China was “moving towards saying goodbye to shanzhai and becoming a fast-lane innovative nation”—one that “once bore the stain of a shanzhai reputation is becoming a globally-renowned innovator.” That was 2014, a year before Zotye’s cars were released.
Also calling the move away from shanzhai into question was a very public federal marshal raid at the Consumer Electronics Show. Responding to a complaint of patent violation, federal authorities shut down the CES booth of hoverboard maker Changzhou First International Trade Co. The company has been accused of liberally borrowing the design for its one-wheel skateboard from US company Future Motion.