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Competition drives create-or-die existence

By Xu Lin and Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2012-06-13 10:31

Vicious competition has continued reinventing the shanzhai, or "mountain fortress" - a term that once meant counterfeit but now refers to micro-innovation - market and its cultural consequences.

This competition means shanzhai producers must get creative, rather than copy, to survive.

This is especially true of the mobile phone market.

"Shanzhai mobile phones have shown pretty impressive innovation in terms of technology, appearance and manufacturability, which find no parallels," principal of Newport Technologies Karl Weaver says.

"A lot of unusual technologies and designs are combined. These combinations bring out a wild variety of functions."

China is the world's largest handset market, and the number of users is set to surpass 1 billion this year, Reuters reports.

Street vendors proffer phones with electric shavers and two SIM card slots - features unique to shanzhai phones.

But there are far quirkier contraptions, such as mobiles shaped like cigarette packs resembling those of Panda, Baisha and "Marlbara" brands. Up to seven cigarettes can be stored inside.

Big Thunder phones feature eight speakers. The Big Cannon Paparazzo is something of a "Frankenphone" with a 6X telescopic lens for its 1.3-megapixel camera, a 3-inch touch screen, double SIM slots, an additional MicroSD slot, Bluetooth, MP3 player and a money authentication reader.

The golden Buddha Heart and Karma model, which resembles a temple ornament, even comes with certification that it has been blessed by monks.

London-based NGO China Dialogue editorial assistant Scully Meng explains shanzhai innovation is about fulfilling people's real needs.

"You can call shanzhai convenient creativity," she says. "People are getting tired of big brands and a certain way of life. This is a way to express themselves."

Weaver says the "genius" phones with shaving razors designed for on-the-go hygiene show how shanzhai often meets needs major brands overlook. "The R&D at Motorola, it's happening in the laboratory. It's not close to life," he says.

"We are witnessing the rise of the hacker-entrepreneurs. It's a classic Silicon Valley legend brought to the back alleys of Shenzhen. Today's shanzhai handset vendors have a real chance to move from back alleys to boardrooms. The possibility exists to create a global brand."

That's exactly what Tianyu, a leading domestic shanzhai phone maker, did. And it's unlikely shanzhai phones will disappear anytime soon, Meng says.

"If I couldn't find these funky mobiles in the market, I'd be disappointed," she says.

Many users believe shanzhai products are also often of surprisingly good quality.

Zhu Lina, a 27-yer-old Shenzhen office worker, says her 10-yuan shanzhai sandals look like original Crocs, which can cost up to 400 yuan ($63).

"They're comfortable," she says.

"My feet never hurt, even if I walk a long way. They're cheap and sturdy. I usually wear them on rainy days. It's not good to imitate others, as it's a violation of intellectual property rights. But if a copycat is innovative, it's a competitive product in its own right."

Yang Yuan, a 26-year-old university instructor in Yunnan province's capital Kunming, agrees.

She spent 10,000 yuan on a bed, a bookshelf, two closets and a TV bench at the furniture chain store 11Furniture. It has Ikea's blue-and-yellow color scheme, mockup rooms and stylish furniture.

The only obvious difference is that Ikea offers Western canteen food, while 11Furniture provides local cuisine. Kunming has no Ikea store. So, people like Yang go to 11Furniture, which provides furniture made to order in various colors.

"Ikea's furniture requires self-assembly and is made of particleboard," she says.

"This store offers more options, and the furniture is solid wood. I love its Ikea-like style, which suits young people like me, who live in small apartments."

Meng explains shanzhai is more than practical products.

"The shanzhai spirit is sometimes a spirit of rebellion but also a spirit that Chinese people are capable of creating anything."

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