Phoney War


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2022年2期


Despite repeated efforts to weed out fakes, Chinese consumers still fall foul of counterfeiting

Photograph from VCG

For the 2020 “Singles Day” shopping festival, Eva Huang splashed out over 300 yuan to buy a Huda Beauty eyeshadow palette on e-commerce platform Taobao. But when her package arrived, the 25-year-old from Suzhou, Jiangsu province, thought the color and fonts on the packaging looked different from the online samples—it was a knockoff made in a small factory in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, rather than imported from Dubai as advertised.

Huang contacted the vendor, but received only excuses until the seller’s online page became inactive less than a month later.

Counterfeiting has been a problem in China for years. A 2017 report by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, concluded that over 80 percent of global counterfeit goods, worth 396.5 billion US dollars alone, originated from China. According to China News, more than 160,000 fake food products were found produced in rural areas across the country in 2020, with the producers fined a total of 1.5 billion yuan.

Public awareness campaigns try to help consumers tell fakes from genuine products. Co-produced by state broadcaster CCTV and the China Consumers Association, the 3.15 Gala, a TV show aired every World Consumers Rights Day (March 15) since 1991, exposes misconduct by companies that violates customers’ rights and interests, from fake car accessories to private data leaks.

But one annual TV program can’t stop all counterfeits, especially those sold through China’s booming livestreaming industry. Instead, private citizens have stepped up. In November 2020, a netizen by the pseudonym Zhu Lin accused famous livestreamerXinba of selling fake “bird’s nest” soup for 17.2 yuan a can on Kuaishou. Xinba repeatedly denied the claims until Wang Hai, another online influencer who has become popular for outing fake products, published a Weibo post claiming the soup was indeed made of cheap sugar water instead of Chinese medicinal ingredients. Xinba eventually issued a public apology and offered buyers a refund, plus compensation totaling three times the amount they spent on the product.

Activists like Wang Hai, who expose fake products and take companies to task, are known as “professional counterfeit busters (職业打假人)” in China. They pursue companies using China’s Law for the Protection of Consumers’ Rights and Interests, which orders businesses caught selling counterfeit goods provide compensation of up to ten times the product’s sale price.

However, some counterfeit-busters have courted controversy by turning finding fakes into a profitable business, focusing on trivial labeling errors rather than serious quality or safety issues. Chen Zhiqiang, a 19-year-old counterfeit-buster from Guangdong province, who has initiated over 800 consumer rights cases and earned tens of thousands of yuan in compensation from companies, faced charges of racketeering and extortion at Xuwen county People’s Court last December.

Huang doesn’t want professionals to help with her case because she believes “they don’t really want to protect consumer interests; they just want to make money.” However, Zhou Yujie, a lawyer in Anhui province who deals with food safety cases, argues counterfeit-busters play an important role: “The important point is whether the product is fake, not whether the accuser is a professional,” she tells TWOC. “After all, fraud-busters are consumers first.”

Bringing counterfeiters to justice can be a difficult task without support, whether from lawyers or professional fake-busters. Huang has been pursuing the fake eyeshadow vendor for over a year, spending 3,000 yuan in legal fees, while the vendor has failed to appear in court throughout. “The main point of suing them is to ask them to correct themselves,” she says, “so they don’t make any more fakes.”


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