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Academic Minute

Dr. Giorgio Riello, University of Warwick – History of Economic Imitation

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Giorgio Riello of the University of Warwick reveals how European manufacturers were once seen as producers of cheap imitations of Asian goods.

Giorgio Riello is Professor of Global History and Culture at the University of Warwick and co-director of the university’s Global History and Culture Center. His teaching and research interests are focused on the history of globalization and global commodities. He earned his Ph.D. at University College London and in 2013 he published his latest book, Cotton: The Fabric that Made the World.

About Dr. Riello

Dr. Giorgio Riello – History of Economic Imitation

We often hear that China’s economic miracle in the first decade of the twenty-first century is sustained by cheap labour and the ability to imitate everything that Europe and the US once produced. It seems that nearly everything in our houses and our wardrobes has been produced in China and other parts of Asia. We think that imitation and copying are essentially bad and that China is winning simply because it produces endless knock-offs at a fraction of the price of the “original” goods produced in the West.

But if we step back in time a couple of centuries , one finds that the situation was the opposite: the industrialisation of Europe and later the US was based on the manufacturing of cotton textiles – printed and painted fabrics that were nothing less than imitations of what was produced in India. The same could be said of porcelain: commonly referred to as ‘China’, it was produced in Europe as an imitation of the original Chinese product from which it took its name.

Before the Industrial revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, Asia was the economic powerhouse of the world and Europeans had no qualms in imitating the superior products of China and India. They did it so well that they invented new versions – often more suitable to the taste of Western consumers – and in doing so stimulated innovation and creativity. China today is doing the same: we might blame its manufacturers for infringing copyright laws but history shows that imitation and the production of what today we call ‘fakes’ is nothing new. The question remains however whether the  rising economies of Asia will seize the opportunity and switch from producers of cheap copies to be promoters of innovation and creativity as the West did three centuries ago.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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