This article examines three significant moments of the shanzhai discourse in WTO-era China. Literally referring to a “mountain fortress” occupied by antiofficial bandits, shanzhai is a new term for wide-ranging knockoff products and copycat media forms. Often invoking Robin-Hood-like righteousness, it connotes a sense of defiance against the globalizing intellectual property rights regime. My account traces shanzhai's rise in the informal mobile phones sector in southern China to its proliferation on the Internet and its representation on state-run television. The discursive formation of shanzhai, I argue, makes visible an imaginary of collectivity, one that disrupts the state's continuous claim to “the nation” as a signifier for “the people.” To realign the national interest with that of “the people,” state media reshapes the shanzhai discourse by separating “shanzhai economy” from “shanzhai culture.” While the fixation of the former as “the illicit” and “the fake” allows the state to re-emerge as a protector of the people, the acknowledgment of the latter reinserts the state as a leader who can direct the energy of “the people” toward national progress. The meaning-making capacity of shanzhai is thus reworked to fit with a value-making notion of creativity so as to be channeled into a developmental force suitable for building the nation's own brands. The ideological struggles manifested in these shanzhai moments call for new perspectives in understanding the Chinese state's operation in globalization.
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Fan Yang; From Bandit Cell Phones to Branding the Nation: Three Moments of Shanzhai in WTO-era China. positions 1 August 2016; 24 (3): 589–619. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-3618141
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