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“China rises” versus “China lacks”

(image source: Han Yuqi, ImageTunel, Shanghai)

A recent NYT times article by John Markoff and David Barboza on the contemporary IT and innovation landscape in China sparked a series of commentaries (see for example James Landay, Tricia Wang, James Fallow). The article offers a constructive alternative to the usual utopian and dystopian stories that either cast China as the looming power yet to come and soon to take over the (Western) world or as a place that inherently lags behind the West as such warranting foreign intervention. Instead of falling into the trap of adopting either one or the other of these common narratives about China’s change, Markoff and Barboza, tell a different story, one that includes voices from both within China and abroad and challenges our current (often Western-centric) framing of innovation. How, they ask, can we think of innovation and creativity differently, when we do not begin with models, frameworks and tools that are intrinsic to our Western modes of IT corporations, knowledge productions and politics?

Given the quite nuanced approach that Markoff and Barboza took, I was surprised when I encountered James Landay’s quite harsh critique of the article. Landay accuses Markoff and Barboza of providing an account that portrays China as the next rising IT powerhouse, which he proclaims is far from now or anytime soon turning into tangible reality. Landay rejects a “China rises” view by pointing to problems in the educational system, misleading claims in regards to China’s forays in super computing, the lack of significant academic publications coming out of Chinese universities, hierarchical power structures at academic institutions, and an inherent lack of creativity amongst China’s students.

I agree with Landay that the countless publications on the rise of China (and the fall of the West) are counterproductive and often hide actual challenges and opportunities. And I also very much so agree with Tricia Wang that establishing networks of trust could enable new forms of collaborations in China (and I have written about issues of trust also in my own research on online gaming). BUT: What is problematic about “what China lacks” stories – as Landay’s – is that they often feed right into powerful governmental narratives that render their own citizens as the main source for China’s lacking and lagging behind. Anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2011), for example, illustrates in ethnographic depth that the “what China lacks” story has become a powerdul political narrative in China employed by government officials to justify a series of social engineering projects that are aimed at building a “healthy” and globally competitive, technologically savvy workforce for China’s future role in the global knowledge economy.

Not too dissimilar from James Landay’s suggestions for improvement, official documents in China, Greenhalgh illustrates, often cite the following factors as crucial for moving China out of its lagging behind position: a better education that creates flexible individuals, an increase in creativity and new forms of innovation, often seen as enabled by advances in modern science and technology. For example, in 2010, at the biennial conference of China’s two leading science and technology organizations at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, president Hu Jintao stresses the role of science and technology in building an innovative and globally competitive nation.

For me, Markoff and Barboza provide a nice counter narrative to either of these two stories, one about the rise and the other about what China lacks (which is also often about what the West can then contribute). Quoting Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr., president of the Economic Strategy Institute, for example, they propose the idea that there exist many different forms of innovation. What form can innovation take when we move beyond the western-centric and silicon-valley centric ideal of tech creation out of the garage?

As our technologies today travel, so are some of their values that are tied up with their designs. Prior research by scholars such as Gabriella Coleman, Fred Turner and Christopher Kelty, for example, illustrates the mobilization of values and ideological commitments such as Internet freedom, Do It Yourself production and flexible work across different sites and regions. However, these scholars also highlight that the translation of these values never occurs smoothly or in the form of a linear uptake from here to there. Rather, they point to frictions and glitches in the transfer of technologies and ideas of what innovation means in different local sites.

A similar argument is made by Markoff and Barboza. They quote Orville Schell, for example, who emphasizes that “through Chinese eyes it [China’s technological, urban and social transformation] looks tremendously uncertain and provisional. They are not filled with self-confidence.” In my own ethnographic work, I have attempted to account for these practices and views as seen and expressed “through Chinese eyes” and voices. My research allowed me to be part of numerous debates and discussions, where people across different ages and incomes debate exactly those issues that Landay brings up. Rather than a lack of creative ideas about how to tackle the challenges people face in China today, I encountered a collective of people who is very aware of these challenges (see for example Hu Yong’s excellent research on the topic, or Isaac Mao’s writings or the work that is happening at xindanwei and xinchejian). Across these, I found an active reflection on China as a nation that is often rendered as lacking and lagging behind the West.

Engaged in cross-cultural and translocal research and design work, I consider it crucial – especially for people working with students like Landay and myself – to be particularly attuned to political narratives and how we might run risk – even if intentionally – take them up in our own efforts. What kind of existing power systems (in the west, in china and in between) might we support when we position China as a place of inherent lack?

I believe it might be fruitful to begin our conversation not with what Landay suggests to be one of the key questions when it comes to China (“where is China with respect to the US and the West in terms of computing today?”), but with the idea that there exist many different forms innovation and creativity.

Let me illustrate with a brief example. Something that has been heavily debated across the wider IT landscape in China as a new form of innovation is the Chinese copycat phenomenon (shanzhai 山寨). The core idea behind 山寨is that the widespread practice of copying end-consumer products in China, such as the mobile phone or Apple product, has today evolved into something else: into the production of new artifacts enabled by the creative labour of the shanzhai factory workers. Tricia Wang, Eddie Wu & Makiko Taniguchi from IDEO and Lyn Jeffrey, for example, have discussed shanzhai and highlighted how factory workers made use of old thrown-away phones, took their working components and created entirely new products, often tailored towards specific markets and needs such as low-income populations. David Li, one of the co-founders of the Shanghai hackerspace xinchejian, summarizes how this form of shanzhai can be seen as innovation with Chinese characteristics: “We want people to take shanzhai seriously. Underneath the surface of Chinese counterfeits, Shanzhai represents a super efficient micro manufacture system that operate on the principle of open source and open innovations. Instead of spending months and millions of dollars to design the one perfect product with millions of units, the Shanzhai vendors adopt a market driven rapid prototyping approach to the market. For example, upon observing the prayers habits of Muslim in the middle East market, Shanzhai makers produced phones with a digital compass and a reminder system, years before the big brands caught on.”

My goal here is not so much to judge if the shanzhai production (in its material and cultural form) is or will lead to the innovative product that Landay and many others are watching out for. The key is to understand the kinds of work that the idea and existing shanzhai production today together perform for people active in China’s hackerspaces and its IT scene writ large. What shanzhai currently allows are two things. First, through shanzhai people have explored alternate modes of tech creation and collaboration. Many who embrace shanzhai in China today also embrace ideas of creative commons and the open sharing of code and knowledge. Second, shanzhai challenges our very notion of originality, authenticity and innovation. In a recent publication, Byung-Chul Han traces shanzhai production back to artistic creation in both Europe and Asia, where the detailed copy of an artistic masterpiece was treated as deep admiration of the “original” creators work of art. Copy was praise. The original was not seen as a stable unit that suggests unique authenticity, but as a thing that continuously evolves (through its appropriation by many). Every add-on, every copy, every modification was seen as creative process of the original itself. Byung-Chul Han argues that what eventually lead to the quite different take on copy and fakes in the West was in part motivated by tourist travel in the 18th century that lead to the restoration of buildings and art works to communicate their authentic historical and cultural identity.

I believe what Shanzhai, as a vision and material practice, can teach us today is begin with the idea that there can be many different understandings of a copy or a fake, many different possible forms of innovation, none of them having a single authentic source nor remaining stable originals. What it teaches us as well is that instead of falling into the trap of repeating already powerful and often told stories, let’s focus on the sites, people and places that aren’t mentioned, e.g. the factory floor of a shanzhai factory in shenzhen.

by Silvia Lindtner