Chinese firms will shed copycat label

Updated: 2014-11-06 12:30

By Zhang Yuwei(China Daily USA)

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It seems that many people still cannot use the word "innovation" when discussing Chinese companies.

Last week, Hugo Barra, vice-president of Beijing-based smartphone maker Xiaomi, again had to defend his company for not being a copycat when it was criticized for its new phone model's resemblance to the iPhone 6.

Barra, a former Google executive who joined four-year-old Chinese mobile device maker Xiaomi a year ago, spoke out at a technology conference in Laguna Beach, California.

"Our designers, our engineers, are inspired by great products and great designs out there," Barra said. "In today's world, who isn't?"

Barra, saying he himself is an Apple fan, added that the iPhone 6 also borrowed "design language" from Taiwan-based smartphone maker HTC.

Still, when a new product made by a Chinese company comes out, many compare it to Western products and try to find the closet model it has "copied".

Frank Lavin, the founder of the e-commerce platform Export Now, which helps American manufacturers and distributors sell online in China, said even though it lengthens the process, Chinese firms are increasingly adept at innovation.

"No surprise that in the early days many of the innovations were perhaps closer to adaptations or modifications rather than 'whole cloth' inventions," said Lavin, a former US under secretary of commerce for international trade.

"As China continues to improve its intellectual property protection, we will likely see more innovation," said Lavin.

Chinese firms will shed copycat label

Gordon Orr, the chairman of Shanghai-based McKinsey Asia, said in a recent blog that it's time we focus more on the impact of Chinese firms' innovation in China and globally.

"From biotech to the Internet to logistics, I see companies creating new business models, products and services, most of which are informed by their own development work and the needs of the market in China as they see it," Orr wrote, who has lived in China for more than two decades.

Orr cited one innovation case of Chinese companies addressing issues such as consumers' fear of unsafe food products with QR-coded products that are tracked from field to home and delivered within 48 hours.

"In many industrial and electrical sectors today, I see a swathe of Chinese companies starting to make this transition, and to explore serving international, not only local customers," Orr wrote.

Indeed, ranging from Chinese biotech companies, which create world-class teams to produce new vaccines, to Internet startups, which bring e-commerce a different level by creating new business models, it's hard to say Chinese firms don't innovate.

Benjamin Zhai, CEO of Caipital Club, a Beijing-based global social network platform for top Chinese business executives, said too much focus has been on Chinese companies being an imitator and too much on how some Chinese firms are truly being innovators has been neglected.

"These stereotypical comments about Xiaomi and other Chinese firms are old stories really, and we need to move beyond them," said Zhai.

"I think the Chinese have advanced products in many different industries and I would call it innovation," said Zhai.

Zhai, who has worked with many Chinese technology firms, said many people overlooked the cultural nuances when they compare innovations of Chinese and Western firms.

"The Chinese education system, which is different from the Western one, does give Chinese students limited space to be innovative because it focuses on following the rules," said Zhai.

Zhai, a former executive search expert in New York, who started his own firm partially driven by the potential Chinese firms and their innovation pace can create, said Chinese firms have a "different style" when it comes to innovation.

"Yes, in many cases, Chinese firms are not the best examples for 'breakthrough innovation' but rather 'application innovation'," he said.

One thing that struck Zhai most - after spending time in Australia and the US as an executive search expert for Fortune 500 firms - is how Chinese firms' innovation was pushed by "a sense of urgency or crisis".

"Compared with well-established Western firms, Chinese firms are very concerned about what they can do to be different so that they can bring something new to the global market to be competitive," said Zhai, citing China's e-commerce giant Alibaba Group's sales promotion on Singles Day as an example.

Alibaba's Singles Day sales promotion, which gives big discounts on Nov 11, reached $5.7 billion last year. The US-listed company is trying to globalize the event this year by reaching out to buyers in more than 200 countries.

"How many global companies have thought about selling cars online on Singles Day?" Zhai asked.

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