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Is copying “part of Chinese culture”?

13 November, 2007

I have often encountered culturalist explanations of why Chinese don’t respect intellectual property rights. One version of this is that it “in Chinese culture,” it is okay to copy other people’s writing without acknowledgement. I remember a professor at Heidelberg, Germany’s most famous university, asking me whether this was true. This has always seemed to me a kind of well-intentioned “intercultural communication” orientalism, but also universities and professors looking for cultural excuses for not enforcing their standards on students who bring money and who they think will go back to China anyway. In China’s good universities, plagiarism is as unacceptable as anywhere else — though let’s remember that the institutionalised plagiarism scare is something new in the West, and often seems as a surrogate reaction to failing education standards.

But recently, Sina.com reported that 19 Chinese organizations in Christchurch, New Zealand, protested against a story in a local paper, identified as “Evening News,” that described Chinese students as “the biggest cheats,” showing a photo of Chinese students copying exam papers and asserting that “cheating is part of Chinese culture.” The paper apologized.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 November, 2007 1:53 pm

    Great post, TTD. Apropos of almost nothing, except that you mentioned “plagiarism,” here’s one of my all-time favorite blog postings, “How to Cheat Good” — one professor’s take on the plagiarism he encountered: http://alex.halavais.net/?p=1427. I still guffaw out loud every time I read it.

  2. 14 November, 2007 6:31 pm

    Well I don’t want to be an “intercultural communications orientalist” (or to encourage plagiarism) but I do want to question the assumption that seems to underlie this post — namely, that not copying is part of some sort of unmarked human nature and that it takes ‘culture’ to make it normal. It might be more interesting to ask what sort of cultural system motivates assumptions make “intellectual property rights” (as opposed to sharing, ripping, mixing, burning, remediating, etc.) seems natural, taken for granted… and in the hands of some and not others.

  3. Third Tone Devil permalink
    15 November, 2007 2:32 pm

    A very good question, and no doubt such variation exists. But what I am suggesting is that I don’t see much evidence that in today’s Chinese public/official discourse copying is more (or less) “natural” than in the West. Of course, in the private realm attitudes probably differ, but I bet they also differ quite significantly within societies (as well as across).

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