Someone Gets It Right on the Chinese Copycat Building Issue

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Copying building designs, monuments, statues, even entire towns? Yeah, that happens over here in China on a fairly regular basis. The most recent case that received widespread attention involved London-based architect Zaha Hadid and a project that may not even be completed before the copycat Beijing version is finished.

A few weeks ago, Jack Carlson, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, posed the big “Why?” question about this phenomenon, and then proceeded to answer it with a weird theory about China’s designs on world domination. Or something. I laughed it off at the time, more amused than annoyed (my annoyance, once again, was reserved for FP, which printed that drek).

But I saw a very nice Op/Ed in Global Times today written by James Palmer and figured that I should raise the issue, if only to give Palmer credit for telling Carlson what he could do with his ridiculous ideas.

Let me back up first, though, and give you some of Carlson’s argument. Palmer, following the practice of many news outlets these days, neither links to the FP piece nor quotes the original author. Now THAT’s annoying! (I do the same thing on occasion, but I have a good excuse: one-man operation, laziness, etc.)

Carlson first lays out a few examples of copycat projects, including the White House replica in Hangzhou, the copying of the entire town of Hallstatt, etc. These are all well known and, in my mind, not at all mysterious in terms of the “Why?” question.

However, Carlson suggests that we are all confused:

China’s fondness for replicating has not gone unnoticed in the West, but as of yet no one has offered a convincing explanation. Some have discussed these imitation cities within the larger theme of China’s copycat syndrome.

[ . . . ]

The phenomenon has also been taken to reflect a Chinese obsession with Western tastes.

Carlson ultimately rejects these theories for another one: these building projects are instances of China “muscle-flexing,” or to put it another way, strutting its stuff on the world stage after graduating to major world power. This is China showing off its technical prowess, telling the world that it is a force to be reckoned with.

Ugh. You can see why I ignored this when it came out. Carlson is apparently an archaeologist by profession (i.e., he is an educated person), but despite his intelligence and the research he performed for this article, he seems to be missing some very basic points.

Before I get to Palmer’s simple and clear rebuttal, can I just first point out that this greater issue of copying buildings, villages, statues, and monuments is not a “China versus the West/foreigners” issue? Just do a quick search on Baidu or Google and you’ll find all those fake Great Walls, famous Buddha statues, terracotta warriors and other iconic Chinese architectural projects that have been copied by cities and towns all over this country. That fact itself suggests to me that Carlson doesn’t have a clue why the copycats do this sort of thing.

Moreover, he tends to lump in modern prestige projects with examples from history in a bizarre fashion. Believe it or not, he suggests that the Qianlong Emperor’s “Western Mansions,” a Versailles-ish construction from the 18th century, is somehow on par with a replica Eiffel Tower, at least in terms of motivation for building it. (No doubt some Jesuits are rolling over in their graves from this comparison.)

On to the alternative, and to me rather obvious, explanation to the big “Why?” question. I knew Palmer was on the right track when I read this:

Carlson’s piece is typical of a certain style of analysis that constantly looks for sinister implications and overarching motives in China, ignoring the everyday incentives that actually produce such projects.

Indeed. Palmer, proving once again why we still revere the name of William of Occam, suggests that perhaps these developers and local government officials are actually commissioning these projects because they might attract tourists and/or purchasers of real estate.

Imagine that! It might just be about making a few shekels or, as Palmer puts it: “The driving force is the market.”

Palmer goes on to make a good case. Why should tourists spend money to go all the way to the UK when they can visit “Thames Town” near Shanghai? Makes we wonder if Carlson has ever visited Epcot Center in Orlando, Disney’s attempt to make foreign travel unnecessary for the average American tourist. Then again, perhaps Carlson would argue that Epcot Center was Disney’s way of showing the rest of the world that “The U.S. no longer needs you.”

Cheers to Palmer, and jeers to Carlson’s assumption that the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing is secretly telling real estate developers out in the Chinese hinterlands to make copies of Philadelphia’s “Rocky” statue and the St. Louis Arch in order to showcase the nation’s wealth and central position in the world.

7 responses on “Someone Gets It Right on the Chinese Copycat Building Issue

  1. JC

    Perhaps the West should wake up to the idea that they’re not the centre of the world, and that a Chinese tourist would point at a White House replica and go “Oh look, how quaint and ethnic!”.

    1. Justin

      No, no, you have it all wrong, rather, it should be:

      “Perhaps the West should wake up to the idea that they’re not the centre of the world, and that a Chinese tourist would point at a White House replica and go “Oh look how the Americans are now copying us!”. It’s happened to me more than once where a Chinese told me VW is a Chinese company. To be fair, Americans are guilty of the same.

      Also, a general comment: anybody who is familiar with Chinese history need not seek a complicated explanation for or be perplexed about the the Chinese proclivity to copy. All throughout Chinese history since at least Confucius, copying has been of the highest virtue–the better the copier, the smarter and more respected you were. Ancient exams (and still many exams today) were based on rote memorization. Memorization and copying were not only accepted, but actively encouraged, and still are today. So I’ll end with the question: what could be more difficult to imitate than a massive and complex modern building? And with the statement: imitation is the greatest form of flattery!

  2. curl of the burl

    Perhaps China should wake up to the idea that ‘the west’ (I’m yet to find this mysterious country) is not the centre of the world, and that a Chinese tourist would point at a White House replica and go “Oh look, how quaint and ethnic!”.

    Putting countries or ethnic groups on a pedestal will never end well. You just get disappointed when you find they are just a human like you or you despise them because they get better treatment.

    There is nothing wrong with copying ‘western’ ideas. China’s being doing it for the last 200 years. It’s what’s driven the reform and opening. Countries do it all the time. It’s called adopting progressive policies.

    Besides the fact that
    a) They are the financial centre of the world
    b) They are the default currency of the world
    c) They have the biggest military in the world
    d) They have the biggest and most popular entertainment and music industry in the world
    e) They have the most successful food chains in the world
    f) They have the best and most popular basketball in the world

    the only thing that makes an American feel they are better than you, is you.

    Chinese idolise American music, food, sports and education. When most Chinese people see a white person, they ask “Are you American?”. Like there is only one other foreign country. If you ask the average Chinese person/student “which foreign country to you want to go to?” at least 50% say America. At the same time they also think America is China’s biggest threat.

    if you think the majority of other countries think America is the centre of the world, you’d be mistaken.

    Now with China’s government’s complete and utter control on the media, I would say the only thing that makes Chinese people think that America is the centre of the world is China’s government and media.

    The only thing that empowers a foreigner to think he/she is superior to you, is you.

    Treat them as equals and they will have no choice but to do the same. Don’t act like you are better than them or conversely look down on them. Just respect them as a person. They will feel that common respect and reciprocate.

    Get out of that pedestal mindset. It’s not healthy for China’s development.

  3. Marius van Andel

    I like your analysis Stan.

    The problem with certain western peoples is that their “patriotism” is pride of the self whereas in other countries it is more pride of the country. I see this difference particularly between the US (pride of self) and Russia (pride of “mother Russia”).

    Hopefully China returns to the path of following Russia in this respect. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your country and preserving its identity. Being proud of yourself, (“look ma, how much better we are”) should be left to those who need it : the Americans.

  4. JC

    RE copying buildings, my brother-in-law, who is an architect, once visited China and commented that sometimes, they’d copy buildings while being totally unaware of how the building “works”, and would make mistakes like putting the main entrance in the back.