Documentary about counterfeiting

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


A complaint of cultural stereotyping in a documentary exploring the global scope of counterfeiting. The documentary focuses on the major producer, China and in trying to understand why there, uses some language that is questionable.

Counterfeit Culture is a documentary that examines the impact of the multi-billion dollar trade in global counterfeit goods. Counterfeit goods, including fake Guccis as well as medications and automotive and aeronautic spare parts, are estimated to be a $700 billion global business. Border and security officials say that organized crime is involved in the manufacture and distribution of these products. In order to document the breadth and scope of these activities, the documentary follows several experts who ferret out the illicit goods where they are manufactured and sold. It makes the case that consumers buy fake goods without considering some of the serious consequences, and documents what those are.

According to the documentary, about three quarters of those goods originate in China and so much of the 45 minute piece featured Chinese enterprises. The script particularly references the art of calliraphy, where precision and faithful reproduction are highly valued, as a reason China is so heavily involved in counterfeiting. You [Winnie Hwo] found this reference “unacceptable, racist and ridiculous.” You particularly objected to the phrase “you could say it is in their cultural DNA.” And while you acknowledged that China is a major source of counterfeit goods, you felt the program unfairly singled out China and the Chinese people and therefore stereotyped and blamed an entire race for the problems of the global challenge of counterfeit goods.


The executive producer of Doc Zone, Michael Claydon, responded to your concerns — and then clarified some information in a second e-mail.

He explained that it was not the documentary’s intent to disparage China or the Chinese. He pointed out that the documentary tried to put the facts into a larger context: “…we were careful to put this statistic (75%) into an economic and cultural context.” He added the context includes the fact that China is the largest manufacturing economy in the world, and went on to say that the ability to copy has a “long and storied history in the country.” The phrase “cultural DNA” was not meant as criticism but to convey the historical significance of copying.

He also pointed out that elsewhere in the documentary it is clearly stated that the blame does not sit with China. He quotes one of the experts in the piece who says: “The problem is not China. The problem is not ethics in China. The problem is a lack of budget in the U.S. And shame on politicians who want to deflect criticism of their budget cuts by blaming China.”

The documentary has several components. It lays out the scope and scale of the challenges of counterfeit merchandise. It makes the point that it has fostered huge profits for organized crime, and while consumers may feel they are just cheating wealthy brand name corporations, these goods represent a significant loss of revenue for governments as well as individuals. It also makes a case that those profiting from counterfeit consumer goods also are involved in the market in counterfeit spare parts and potentially deadly phony medications. It backs up these claims with credible information.

Through the eyes of those tasked to ferret out this merchandise, it shows the extent of their availability and how hard it is to control this trade. It focuses in on China where some three quarters of these goods originate. According to the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, this is an accurate figure. You wondered about the focus on China when other countries are also involved in production. Journalists have a duty to truth telling. While it may be uncomfortable, to tell the story from the perspective of the location where most goods come from seems a reasonable choice. There was some effort to put it all into context. The presenter of the program and narrator of the piece, Anne-Marie Macdonald says: “China is the largest manufacturing economy in the world. They can create, adapt or copy almost anything you can think of.”

If it had been left at that, there would be no issue. The next segment is part of an interview with Tim Phillips, a British journalist and author of a book on the global growth of counterfeiting. He says: “...also in China the ability to copy precisely always had great social status. So it’s natural they should get into this business.” Leaving aside whether this is an accurate statement, it does seem to be a bit of a leap to explain the volume of goods coming from China.

The piece goes on to show the village of Dafen, whose major industry is the reproduction of paintings of any description. The industry began in this village in the 1990s, with about 20 artists. It has now grown to a 5 million dollar industry and some 5,000 artists. The documentary suggests that it has been highly successful because there is a tradition of calligraphy that demands precision, a skill that is also necessary in copying. “The skills are passed from generation to generation. You could say it is in their cultural DNA.”

CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices talks about the use of language and stereotyping. The policy is broader than the context here, but is worth quoting:

Our vocabulary choices are consistent with equal rights.

Our language reflects equality of the sexes and we prefer inclusive forms where they are not prohibitively cumbersome.

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

I take Mr. Claydon at his word when he says in the minds of the program makers “our intent was never to disparage China or the Chinese but rather to make us all aware that our choices as consumers have serious consequences.” It does an excellent job of making that case, and for the most part is successful in analyzing and explaining China’s role in this industry. I don’t believe that a viewer would come away with the impression that somehow Chinese people are inherently more predisposed to become involved in this illegal trade. In further conversation with the programmers, they emphasize that the phrase “cultural DNA” is meant to describe what a country is known for, what elements define the culture. Citing the extremely successful art enterprise in Dafen was a way of illustrating the tradition.

However, the attempt to provide a cultural context did use some turns of phrase that were not helpful in explaining the broader complex picture, and could be misinterpreted. The programmers believed they were providing some context, and that because the ability to render copies precisely is an historically valued skill, it was a reasonable observation to explain the modern day industry. It can also be seen as an oversimplification. The explanation is not as clear as they might think. Broad generalizations about a specific group of people can easily be taken as stereotyping. It is a flaw in an otherwise strong piece of journalism.

Esther Enkin CBC Ombudsman