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A Da Vinci Scam? Decoding China’s Fascination With Foreign Goods

China’s CCTV recently exposed a company called Da Vinci Furniture for putting fake “foreign-made” labels on its domestically-manufactured goods. The case says as much about Chinese consumer habits as it does about the questionable ethics of a single compa

Advertisements in Beijing, China
Advertisements in Beijing, China
Zhang Zixing

Hundreds of thousands of Renminbi (RMB) for a chair. A few million for a leather sofa. These are typical prices -- equivalent to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars --- of items sold by Da Vinci Furniture, a Chinese company that claims to sell foreign brands of luxury furniture, and in particular furniture from Italy.

But now, the company's claims are under scrutiny, as the Chinese television network CCTV says it has decoded the real origins of Da Vinci's goods. According to CCTV, Da Vinci's foreign-made labels are fakes. The furniture is actually manufactured on Chinese soil, but routed through a Bonded Logistics Zone to give it the appearance of coming in from abroad.

Last week, Da Vinci's general manager, Zhuang Xiuhua, cried at a press conference in Beijing, claiming the media reports were untrue. The same day, however, the Shanghai Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau confirmed the CCTV claims. Da Vinci's furniture does indeed make routine "one-day trips' to the Bonded Logistics Zone before being sold to consumers at a high markup.

Lots of people who had bought furniture from Da Vinci are now demanding refunds. A man who was present at the press conference declared that he had bought more than 10 million RMB worth of furniture. He shouted angrily "Everything is fake! The furniture, as well as their product launches!"

Why weren't people returning the goods before the lies of the company were exposed? Doesn't this just demonstrate that the clients had very irrational expectations about foreign goods? Do foreign goods always signify better quality?

From the ignorance and the xenophobia of the closed state from the 17th to 19th centuries, to the blind worshipping of the West after the Opium War, and to today's rush for imported products, attitudes in China have undergone many changes. One thing that's quite ingrained in the Chinese psyche, however, is the idea that: "A foreign moon is always rounder."

On the other hand, it isn't entirely without reason that the Chinese are so blinded by their fascination with all things foreign, particularly since ‘Made in China" has become so synonymous with bad quality. Melamine added to baby milk. Badly constructed houses. An abundance of counterfeit mobile phones. If people are living in a dangerous environment, it is no wonder that whoever can afford it, will buy imported goods thinking they are guaranteeing their security.

Inferiority complex

Since the loss of the Opium War, the inferiority complex of the Chinese has pushed them to place foreign manufacturers on a pedestal. For domestic producers, the secret is to seek a foreign "endorsement" – to establish foreign cachet by using non-Chinese in their advertising campaigns. When Da Vinci was launching its new products, it paid more than 10 foreigners to back their goods. Chinese companies seem to have come to the conclusion that as long as there's a foreigner involved, all problems will be solved.

Since the opening of China 30 years ago, some people have become wealthy. Yet material richness can't cover their mental poverty. The backwardness of old China and the poor image of Chinese-made goods are still haunting us. Luxury foreign goods highlight one's status. It also visibly and invisibly divides people into different classes. A successful man wears a Swiss watch, dresses in clothes from France, and drives a German car. And if he's lucky, he sleeps in an Italian bed.

Not only the rich are enthusiastic about foreign stuff. The middle class too use foreign goods as a status symbol. Luxury brands are gradually becoming tickets for entering certain social circles. To own an Hermes bag makes you a socialite who has free entry to all parties. Some Shanghai white-collar workers borrowed ​​large sums of money just to buy brand-name merchandise. Chinese have now supplanted Russians as the world's top consumers of luxury goods.

The English say "noble blood is blue." The expression does not suggest there is an actual blood color difference between aristocrats and commoners. What it means instead is that character of the truly noble sort arises from several generations of accumulated knowledge and virtue. To have good taste requires accomplishment in arts and in culture. People shouldn't buy Rolex watches just because they are expensive. Nor does antique styling make furniture more luxurious. Or put another way: one should always dress accordingly for the occasion.

By decoding Da Vinci Furniture, CCTV has not only exposed the lies of one fraudulent company, it has also laid bare the overall mentality of Chinese consumers.

Read the original story in Chinese

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