Last September, just before the release of the iPhone 6s, there were reports that fake Apple stores were popping up all over China.

One city, Shenzen, was reported to have more than 30 stores with the Apple logo on it all of whom were taking pre-orders for the new Iphone.

In one sense, this sort of copying is just part of a long battle that Apple has with counterfeit manufacturers globally.

But in a larger context, this raises the issue once again of the Chinese copying others rather than designing original goods and services.

Do they still deserve this reputation in our newly digital world?

Fakes everywhere in Asia

Well, one problem that China faces in losing this reputation is that it has a long history of producing counterfeit goods.

They are particularly prolific in producing fake consumer products, which is reckoned to be a $600bn market globally.

Manufacturing and sales of counterfeit luxury goods, apparel, and electronics is common in Asia and it’s normal to see them sold openly in markets.

Watches in Vietnam…

…apparel in Bangkok…

…and, of course, the famous fake malls in China.

And attributing these fakes to the Chinese is not based on unsubstantiated rumours.

A study by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) found that 75% of counterfeit goods globally originate in Asia, most in China.

So how about the digital world?

At first glance, it seems that China is heading in the same direction digitally

Baidu emulates Google…

…Didi Kuaidi’s site looks more than a bit like Uber’s…

..and Xiaomi channels its inner Apple here, for sure.

So, is it happening all over again? Is China’s tendency to copy spilling over into the digital domain?

Steady on…

Before casting judgment too hastily, there are some good reasons why China has copied the digital leaders in the West.

Though we now think of China as being our digital equal, it hasn’t always been so.

Western countries had earlier Internet adoption than China…

…more successful Internet busineses earlier…

…and adoption of social networks happened quicker (Facebook, mainly).

So, I would argue that the West had a great head start with digital design and internet business models and the Chinese are now catching up.  

Imitation of their designs and business models should then be regarded as an indication that Google, Uber, and Apple got things right and that there is no need for the Chinese to reinvent everything.

Things are changing

Looking ahead, though, it seems that it is less likely that China will continue to copy the West.

In order to understand how the world is changing, it’s first good to look at how the global internet population is changing.

China now has dramatically more netizens than the US and they make up over 20% of the global online population.

Though its difficult to generalize about the implications of this, it seems more likely that China will now pull ahead of the West instead of following.

And, in some ways, China is already shedding its copycat label and innovating with products, design, and business models.

Examples of Chinese innovation

Innovation with mobile OS

The massive market for mobile devices means Asia, and specifically China, offers great rewards but also tremendous competition.

Because Chinese companies are so good at scaling, the one that gets the product right will take the market. So manufacturers must innovate or be wiped out very quickly.

One leader in this area is mobile phone manufacturer Xiaomi.

Although Xioami originally based its mobile OS on Android, it has now significantly moved away from it and now has its own OS (MIUI) and cloud services.

In order to keep up with users’ demands, Xioami has, for years, released an over-the-air update of the OS every Friday.

And after the OS is released, users are asked about the bug fixes and features they would like in the next version. These are collated and sent to the engineers.

This is certainly an innovative approach to developing a mobile operating system.

Innovation with mobile interfaces

The Chinese have also innovated with mobile user interfaces (UIs) and user experiences (UX), some of which have not yet reached the West.

Dan Grover, a product manager on WeChat, documents some of these in two very interesting blog posts (first, second). He mentions UI innovations such as:

  • Indeterminate badges, which are indicators and reminders of a new feature you haven’t used yet,

  • Discover menus, which hide non-essential but useful features, and,
  • Themes/Skins, which let you customize apps, and many more.

Innovation in products and services

Finally the Chinese now have unique products and services developed locally for their own market.

Mobile manufacturer Oppo is famous for creating phones which improve selfie-taking, a very important user requirement in China.

Some phone models have a twistable camera and others have filters which add makeup to the subject after the photo has been taken.

And WeChat has successfully integrated a payment system with its mobile applications which has created a huge amount of mobile applications.

Smartphone users in China can hail a taxi, order food, pay bills, and donate to charity all from one app, without having to enter in credit card details.

For more about WeChat, read:

And Apple?

Well according to the latest reports, the Fake Apple stores are closing down and the same stores are now selling locally-branded phones from Huawei, Xiaomi, and Oppo.

According to one shop assistant, “It’s not as cool as before to have an iPhone”.

So, it seems we should stop regarding China as a copycat and instead look over the fence and see what they have that we might be interested in adopting ourselves!