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Walking through Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, I was approached by a student who invited me to see her art school’s exhibition inside China’s National Art Museum. I figured, Why not?

Though much of the student work was technically accomplished (yes, it was all for sale to tourists), nothing grabbed me. Then I saw a provocative sequence of boldly colored, sharply angular paintings that looked like nothing else. I bought one. By chance, the young artist was there. His English was good, so we talked about his work and ambitions.

Trying to be helpful, I suggested he post his work on the school’s Web site so that potential collectors from around the world could get a taste of his talent. The fellow shook his head and stared at me as if I were an idiot. “If I post my pictures on the Internet,” he said, “everybody will then see my style and copy it.”

That comment reveals everything one needs to know about how aspiring innovators think in cultures where copying is a legal, social, economic, and creative norm. China is a country whose economy doesn’t suffer from “not invented here” syndrome. To the contrary, the Middle Kingdom is a plagiarist’s paradise. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery; it’s China’s industrial-development business model.

So you’ll find the latest in pirated DVDs hawked by sidewalk peddlers loitering near Beijing’s better hotels. Street vendors provide the finest counterfeit brand-name merchandise from all over the world for pennies on the dollar. Indeed, China’s burgeoning “gray market”-unauthorized production runs and off-the-books sales of otherwise legitimate quality goods-enjoys seemingly irrepressible growth.

But perversely, its cavalier regard for intellectual property is precisely why the world’s most populous nation is destined to become a global innovation juggernaut. This overwhelmingly copycat culture is rapidly developing an infrastructure for innovation that stealthily but sturdily complements its evolving world-class manufacturing infrastructure.

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