Written by Silvia Lindtner.
In January 2015, the Chinese government released a new national policy called 众创空间 zhongchuang kongjian (“mass makerspace” or “makerspaces for the people”). The new policy was announced only weeks after the Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang had visited a grassroots community space in Shenzhen: Chaihuo, one of China’s earlier makerspaces (or hackerspaces as they are often called) that had brought together hobbyist tinkerers, entrepreneurs, artists, designers, and manufacturers around the topic of open source hardware. The underlying vision of the policy – as articulated in numerous government speeches and text – was that a “maker” approach was ideally positioned to help China cultivate an attitude of “self making” and “self entrepreneurship,” which in turn would help democratise innovation, technology and scientific advances beyond a set of privileged few. The “mass” in mass maker space, in other words, stands for the goal of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset and mobilising many – if not masses of – people in China to start-up their own businesses. In a speech at the 2015 Shanghai Pujiang Innovation Forum, the Chinese minister of Science and Technology, Wan Gang 万钢, described this as follows:
“This is part of the new normal; we need to better transfer academic research into commercial products; science should serve our economy… open source and open hardware can help realize this innovation strategy. We encourage crowdsourcing and mass entrepreneurship in society so that resources are better distributed… It’s the opportunity of the majority, rather than just the privilege of the few, to realize a life long dream.”
The Chinese term for maker, 创客 chuangke, which features centrally in national policy documents today, did not exist until very recently. And it was not an invention by the Chinese government. Rather, the term was coined by China’s makers themselves – a collective of people who had been working on topics of DIY (do it yourself) making and who set up China’s first hackerspaces and open source hardware businesses from 2008 onwards. In contrast to more common connotations of illegally hacking into a system, hacking here stands for opening up the black box of technology, making the inner workings of closed end-consumer products understandable and visible. In 2012 they organised China’s first international maker event: the Beijing Maker Carnival 北京嘉年华. While planning the event, everyone agreed that a Chinese term for maker/hacker was necessary to communicate their work to a broader audience in China. The group came up with the term 创客 chuangke (maker, creative/innovative professional) to distinguish their work from the widely used notion of 黑客 heike (hacker, black professional), which carries negative connotations of illegal activity in both English and Chinese. 创客, by contrast, has the benefit of implying notions of 创新 chuangxin (innovation), 创业 chuangye (start-up a business), and 创意 chuangyi (creativity). The Chinese character 创 chuang features in all of these words, so the meaning of 创客 itself is flexible, simultaneously implying a variety of things such as making, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Since the mass makerspace initiative, funding has been made available to local governments to set up makerspaces, incubators, and fablabs. Middle and high schools, universities, but also companies and, somewhat ironically, factories have opened up such new spaces. The goal is not only to train China’s next generation of entrepreneurs, but also to upgrade traditional manufacturing and industrial production companies through digital technology, innovative thinking and automation, which is more widely known as 互联网＋ hulianwangjia (“InternetPlus”) or “Industry 4.0” initiative, with similar initiatives being rolled out in Europe, the US and other parts of Asia. This move is not coming out of nowhere: Media coverage on China over the last year has heavily focused on shifts in the Chinese economy, with its previously rapid growth slowing down and sectors such asconstruction and manufacturing, previously pillars of the economy, responding accordingly. The cultivation of an entrepreneurial mindset is seen as a central strategy to address these shifts. In particular, the government fears unemployment (especially amongst college graduates) and social instability. The excitement that making has generated in China is envisioned to be productively morphed into alternative occupations by turning individuals into passionate and self-driven members of society.
This approach builds on but also departs in important ways from earlier policy initiatives on creative industry development: With China’s entry into the WTO in 2001, the Chinese government began a series of partnerships with foreign advisors, mostly from the UK and Australia, to develop China’s approach towards building a knowledge economy and creative society, aimed at transcending China’s reliance on manufacturing, and at transforming the country from “made in China” to “created in China” (for more details on this, see for instance, Greenspan 2014, Keane 2007, Lindtner 2012). The new policy extends beyond this earlier approach by stipulating making as carrying the means for creative production and entrepreneurial activity beyond those working in the tech and creative industries. By mobilising many to become self-actualising citizens, a neoliberal tendency of shifting responsibility for employment and work from the government onto the individual is further extended.
Is this what China’s makers had in mind when they started China’s first hackerspaces?
It was six years ago, in the fall of 2010, when China’s first hackerspace, 新车间 XinCheJian (new workshop/factory floor), opened its doors in a tiny room rented at the Shanghai coworking space 新单位 XinDanWei (new workunit). Its three co-founders were David Li (李大维), Min Lin Hsieh (谢旻琳) and Ricky Ng-Adams (伍思力). I had been working with XinChejian since before its inception, following as an ethnographer the articulations and technical explorations that led to the opening of the space all the way to the subsequent proliferation of making over the last 5 years. In many ways, XinCheJian looked like many other hackerspaces that have popped up in the thousands all over the world: a community space that provided equipment, machines and tools for its members to tinker and play with electronics, hardware, software, physical materials, and more, all while sharing resources and knowledge. XinCheJian shared with many other hackerspaces the vision of enabling people to make their own technologies (rather than consuming them), and of remaking social, economic and educational structures in doing so (for a more detailed account see some of my other writings on “Hacking with Chinese Characteristics” and “Designed in Shenzhen”).
And yet, although China’s makers aligned with the values and ideals of the so-called “global maker movement,” something was different about China’s first hackerspace. This was brought home to my attention in a conversation with co-founder David Li back in 2010. “Just look outside this window,” David directed me, “and look at what the workers are doing on the street and in these little shops. On a daily basis, people re-use discarded parts and fix broken machines rather than buying new stuff… It’s making out of necessity. It’s open source hardware in practice. This is different from the West, where open source hacking only exists in theory. In China, the actual maker in the factory is involved, the workers, the repair guy on the street. Our hackerspace in Shanghai is getting at this. It’s going to be a hackerspace with Chinese characteristics.” With the notion of a hackerspace with Chinese characteristics, David articulated a vision that I saw reflected amongst many of China’s makers: the vision to alter how China was typically perceived – as a place of copycat and cheap production. Many of China’s makers have urged both Chinese and Western audiences to take seriously China’s history and culture of making rooted in industrial production, repair, and mundane re-use as a site of expertise. In other words, China’s makers argue that it is exactly China’s informal economies of repair and manufacturing that constitute a crucial site to challenge Western-authority claims over what counts as innovation and where it is located.
This articulation of seeing China as already being a site of innovation, while reworking what innovation means in the first place, differs from official rhetoric that characterises Chinese manufacturing as much as Chinese citizenry as in need of “upgrading.” With the mass makerspace and Internet Plus (or Industry 4.0) policies, the government intends to replace the fabric of China’s informal production economy with incubators, innovation hubs, venture capital funding, design thinking, and so on. Just as the creative industry policies back at the turn of the century, the mass makerspace initiative today runs the risk of dismissing making and entrepreneurship cultures that have formed in China over the last 30 years: The workers, engineers and designers in China’s manufacturing businesses, the small craftsman and repair workshops that still make up much of China’s urban fabric are, in the eyes of China’s decision makers, rarely synonym with the kind of the making and entrepreneurship culture they now endorse.
Leo Lee, founder of a makerspace in Chengdu, summarised this issue when he spoke at a 2015 innovation forum in Shanghai: “In China, we are not in shortage of makers. We actually have makers all around us, the makers who build our infrastructures, repair our phones, and build our homes. China has so many makers, we just don’t have a mechanism to identify them. We don’t see them.”