Shenzen, Shanzai and Maker Culture

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Reading Wen Wen, and Gu and Shea and a preview of work by Lindtner about Shenzen, I was asked to reflect on what is Chinese maker culture and who or what forces are cultivating it and why.

These works put forward a picture of Chinese maker culture as a hard-working ethos, that has arisen from traditional manufacturing, moved to shanzai (imitation phone manufacturing in small batches) to what Wen calls 0-1 makers and makers to makers which are individual makers and makers working together in makerspaces. Lindtner describes shanzai as an idealized form of grassroots experimentation that operated across a range of scales, from local to vast, and how it is perceived as “hacking with Chinese characteristics”, or the orientalised version of making. It is apparent that Chinese maker culture and identity came about through social engineering from government, business people and foreign interests cultivating it as opposed to being a grass roots movement. Wen ironically calls it “top-down grass-roots innovation”.  As a result there are different points of view on what Chinese maker identity means depends on which cultivating force you are considering.

According to Lindtner, Eric Pan founder of the Shenzen based open source hardware company Seed Studios is a champion of shanzai 2.0, which combines the manufacturing efficiency of shanzai with open-source and open innovation. Pan struck a nerve when he situated shanzai in a long tradition of Chinese ingenuity, aligning shanzai to the Philopsher and inventor Mozi. Lindtner argues that Western maker culture is all about fun, social impact, self-realisation, invention, hobbies and tinkering, rather than manufacturing efficiency and hacking out of necessity. Pan’s positioning of shanzai 2.0 has legitimised shanzai in the eyes of the makers of the West, because it is aligned with Western values but still providing enough difference and oriental flavour to keep Chinese makers as “other”.

This leads on to why Lindtner argues that Western influencers such as MIT Media Lab (Fab Labs) and Makers and corporations need to see Chinese maker culture as “other”. He describes their disillusionment with the Western techno-utopia, and their fears that the West is a “broken world”, so they look to China as a source of renewed optimism, because of their perception that China is a “temporal other”, stuck in the past and still replete with opportunities for technology to do good.  Xin and Shea argue that the West use Chinese maker culture as a “soft-landing” for their brands and ideas, to introduce their product to Chinese markets and also access the Chinese manufacturing supply chain.

Lindtner talks about the free culture movement and Lessig’s belief that shanzai creative copying is actually piracy. Essentially unless copying is done in a fun, carefree and profit-free way, it is bad, therefore someone only has a right to hack if they still respect the underlying ideas of IP, ownership and authorship.

But David Li and Huang argues that shanzai represents China’s right to hack, and that IP laws are unethical and it is shanzai that is morally and ethically correct. Chinese makers are like Robin Hood, righting the wrongs of an unfair IP regime imposed by the West.

The Chinese government support makers through tax breaks, infrastructure, education, R&D support and other means, because encouraging frugal innovation is low risk to them as makers are “venture labor” described by Gina Neff last week. Their agenda is to have mass innovation that will continue to refresh the Chinese economy, so that’s how they support Chinese maker culture.

 Therefore there are many different rationales and perspectives on Chinese maker culture but they are all working towards giving it legitimacy and relevance.

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