Ji Wanchang strolled through a Beijing
luxury mall one recent morning with an eye out for luxury coats. But at one store, a clerk told him a fur-collared Moncler and other coats were “sample sizes” and not for sale.
A second clerk, selling a wolf fur-lined Yves Salomon, said the coat was reserved.
Ji sighed. In both cases, the fur wouldn’t match their labels, he suspected — and the clerks knew selling a fake to Ji, who is well known on sight in many of China’s shops, meant big trouble.
“Ma’am, I don’t want to make things difficult for you,” he told a sales clerk, who nodded and bowed. “I’ve found problems with your clothes, so please correct them.”
Ji is what is known in China
as a professional counterfeit
hunter. Part Ralph Nader, part bounty hunter, Ji rummages for fake or substandard goods in shops. Then, using China’s consumer protection laws, he collects tens of thousands of dollars from the companies that make or sell them. The laws are part of China’s growing effort to weed out the fake clothes, electronics, food and furniture that swamp its stores and frustrate companies and consumers alike.
But Ji’s livelihood is now under threat. Some government officials say Ji and the unknown number of others
like him abuse a law that was meant merely to empower consumers to report fakes. If proposed new government rules get accepted, people like Ji will no longer be able to go pro.
Even as China
grows and matures, and moves to protect brands and ideas, it still struggles with how to get rid of fakes. Overseas governments, overseas companies and even its own increasingly choosy consumers complain that China’s counterfeit
products hurt brand names and common people alike. Chinese leaders have stepped up efforts to cull them, in part to protect homegrown companies that are starting to produce their own innovative products. Last year, China’s courts handled about 120,000 intellectual property cases, up nine per cent from 2014, according to official media.
One anti-fake effort was intended to empower the consumer. In 2009, the government promised consumers that if they found a product that flouted food safety laws, they could win 10 times the value of that product in compensation. In 2013, China
bolstered an earlier consumer protection law by increasing payouts to buyers of other kinds of fake goods, while a decision from China’s supreme court was widely seen as supporting counterfeit
Ji and his peers have used these laws to their advantage, buying knockoffs in bulk — the more they turn in, the more they are paid — and filling their storerooms with counterfeit
products. Ji’s group, the Jinan Old Ji Anti-Counterfeit
Rights Defense Work Studio, has a network of about 20 informers who report suspected fake products. He says his biggest success to date is collecting about $178,000 in compensation from a company that tried to pass off its blankets as pure cashmere.
© 2016 New York Times News Service