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China company clones a whole town

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then China has really flattered an Unesco World Heritage Site in the Austrian Alps by creating an exact replica of the town of Hallstatt in an area about 100 miles from Hong Kong.

Business Insider summarized: "The replica of Hallstatt, a centuries-old village in Austria, opened in the Chinese province of Guangdong amid some controversy, as natives of the original Hallstatt were not initially made aware that their historic buildings and streets were being ripped off."

Although there were some initial grumblings at the secret project, most of the Austrian town seems to have made its peace. BBC News says the mayor of Hallstatt even flew in with a delegation to participate in the opening ceremony in 2012.

Mayor Alexander Scheutz told BBC News that people in Hallstatt are amused that such a small place is important enough to get a copy. Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese tourists are coming to Austria to see the original.

Some may complain that imitation is affecting the profits and prices of companies that develop projects and products. But in some respects, it may be cultural misunderstanding in play when people look at clones and copies and intellectual property in China.

Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman at Freakonomics explain why copying is not just occasionally tolerated, but even sometimes celebrated in China: "China's uneasy relationship with intellectual-property law is due in no small part to China's 'shanzhai' culture. What is shanzhai? The literal meaning of the word is 'mountain stronghold,' but it has come to connote imitation, and more, imitation done in a way that is up-front about its fakery and may even be celebrated for it. Shanzhai culture is incredibly vibrant and shows no sign of slowing down. Shanzhai cellphones, for instance, are sometimes applauded for their ingenuity. Some include nifty features not seen on the original they are imitating."

Der Spiegel illustrates this shanzhai culture as it talks about a bizarre race to finish two buildings in China: "Star architect Zaha Hadid is currently building several projects across China. One of them, however, is being constructed twice. Pirates are in the process of copying one of her provocative designs, and the race is on to see who can finish first. … The project being pirated is the Wangjing SOHO, a complex of three towers that resemble curved sails, sculpted in stone and etched with wave-like aluminum bands, that appear to swim across the surface of the Earth when viewed from the air."

So far, the pirates are faster at building their copy of Hadid's building than the original.

But with questions over copies of phones, Apple stores and even a BMW car, not every person in China is enamored with the shanzhai culture.

"Chinese architecture is very characteristic and stylish," Zhong Ping, a Huizhou resident, told the South African Press Association after looking at the copy of Hallstatt. "Just work on your own style. Why do you have to copy others? Even the flowers are fake; I can tell they are fake at first glance."


Twitter: @degroote