Some of the most acrimonious moments of Monday’s presidential debate occurred during the candidates’ discussions of China, with Barack Obama attacking Mitt Romney for his investments in Chinese companies, and Romney demanding that we adopt a tougher line on the Chinese counterfeiting of American products. Romney was particularly shocked to discover that counterfeit valves –bearing fake serial numbers – were “being sold into our market and around the world” as though they’d been made by the U.S. competitor. “This can’t go on,” he insisted, as if this were a fraud being perpetrated for the first time during Obama’s presidency. While Romney’s outrage may make for good politics, history shows that Chinese counterfeiting is almost as old as America itself.
The first American ship to travel to China was the Empress of China, which sailed from New York to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) in 1784, returning to New York in May 1785 with a cargo of tea, cotton fabric and porcelain. It earned its backers $30,000, a 25 percent return on their investment.
As word of the Empress of China’s successful trip spread, a growing number of American merchants headed out to get their piece of the proverbial China pie. Between 1784, when the Empress of China blazed the trail, and the end of the War of 1812, almost 300 American ships made 618 voyages to Canton.
The merchants on those ships were greatly impressed by the highly skilled Chinese craftsmen, who were among the worlds most talented and productive. And the Americans noticed, as had the many European traders who preceded them, that the Chinese were exceptionally good at copying or reproducing objects and images.
Among the most intriguing Chinese reproductions were paintings. For a small fee, Chinese painters in Canton would copy any image the foreigners provided. (They also created unique paintings of Chinese scenes.) Americans took full advantage of this opportunity, and many famous American paintings, engravings and prints were thus duplicated and brought back to the United States. Among the more popular were representations of Lady Liberty, John Paul Jones, the landing of the Pilgrims and the Battle of Lexington.