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Hacking Goes to China

In China, the popularity of DIY hacking is on the rise, with the state now funding new hackerspaces in the hope of encouraging innovation. But can the hacker ethic flourish in a country with a poor record of protecting freedoms?

by Sabine Blanc On May 3, 2012

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Journaliste digitale en mutation perpétuelle, et j'aime ça.

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In hackerspaces the world over, you will find DIY enthusiasts fiddling with LED displays and circuit boards bearing the mark ‘Made in China’. Now the Chinese have begun to turn their hand to some hacking of their own. Evidence of this growing movement can be seen in two major events organised in China this spring, dedicated to hackers, makers and creative tinkerers of all stripes. Maker Faire, the popular fair concept born in the US and adapted successfully across continents, was held in China for the first time in April. DIY disciples were welcomed to Shenzhen, a city in the south of the country next to Hong Kong that has witnessed an extraordinary economic boom over the past decade. Meanwhile, Maker Carnival continues until Saturday in Beijing, featuring exhibitions, workshops, and meetings.

That a thousand hackerspaces might bloom

At the origin of this movement are Chinese people who have had the opportunity to emigrate or travel. Alongside David Li, Ricky Ng-Adam and his wife Min Lin Hsieh co-founded XinCheJian, the first Chinese hackerspace in Shanghai, in 2010. Neither were born in mainland China.

Now indigenous hackers have taken the initiative. The latest hackerspace to open, Onion Capsule in Hangzhou, was started by someone who has never left China, and neither have its members.

If people are coming for the simple pleasure of hacking, this surge in hackerspaces is also the result of the current economic turmoil, as Ricky Ng-Adam explained.

To begin with China is a very conducive place for hackerspaces, because technology plays a vital and relatively controversy-free role in economic development. Furthermore, in a country where guanxi (personal relationships) play a key role, it’s sometimes difficult for the Chinese who are outside the recognised and legal organisations, which are quite limited in number, to create this type of connection. A hackerspace allows lots of young people to meet and build a network of their own through collaborative projects, rather than wining and dining people.

Some of the Chinese participants are pushing to transform (XinCheJian) into an incubator or purely commercial space. They have difficulty perceiving the non-monetary benefits of participating in such a space. Often the key issue for them is that of our “profit”.

Ricky Ng-Adam started his own business with a partner, a Chinese electronics engineer, he met in his hackerspace. Their aiming to target hackers with a niche product, a kind of super Arduino. Eric Pan, one of the organisers of Maker Faire Shenzhen, created Seeed Technology, a company specialising in open source hardware. He also co-founded the Chaihuo makerspace.

Satisfying the domestic market

Mitch Altman, tireless surveyor of hackerspaces around the world, could sense the excitement during his recent inspection of the troops. He visited six spaces, including one at a petrochemicals university in Beijing. That space is part of the Toyhouse programme, whose purpose is to set up hackerspaces in schools and universities throughout China to promote learning in a creative, practical and fun environment. According to Mitch, the initiative aims:

To help Chinese culture to evolve so the country can discover its economic future.

Eric Pan and Mitch Altman in Shenzhen, April 2012 (CC) Maltman

Mitch Altman sees it as one of the paths to facilitating an inevitable economic emancipation. With the economic balance shifting, the Chinese will have to innovate. After years of designing and manufacturing products to be exported to Western countries, now they need to turn inward to their expanding domestic market, supported by a new middle class. Mitch Altman:

China has a long history of Confucianism, where people are born into their position and know their roles and their place in society. Personal fulfilment takes a back seat to these obligations. The substitute for fulfilment is that people are driven by their parents and society to seek higher status, and make more money. This very effectively narrows the realms in which people can be creative. Yet current economic conditions everywhere in the world require creative people in a broad sense.

There are a billion people here.  If some percentage of them explore and do what they love, then they will come up with those unique goods and services, and create local economies that are good for China. Hackerspaces can play a key role in this here in China, if there are supportive communities where people can explore and do what they love, whether or not it makes money.

It was not by accident that Eric Pan chose to organise Maker Faire in Shenzhen, home of Foxconn, Apple’s controversial subcontractor. His goal was to break the stereotype, he explained.

Shenzhen is the most advanced city in terms of technology and science in China, the best place for start-ups. There are two main universities and each university, including Beijing, has a branch here.

Ultimately, this development of hackerspaces is a vector of democratisation, as Ricky Ng-Adam underlined.

They can build bridges between groups of different disciplines, ages and social classes on an equal basis and driven by technology. We can provide inspiration for the creation of an open and innovative society.

Government recovery

Facilitating innovation and fermenting democracy: even more reasons for the powerful Chinese state to closely monitor the movement. Aside from Toyhouse, the province of Shanghai announced this fall it will support a plan to develop one hundred hackerspaces. The project, launching this month, plans to provide equipment for hackerspaces that meet certain conditions: their space must be at least 100 metres-squared in size, and open at least 200 days a year.

By definition the hacker ethic, where freedom and re-appropriation are fundamental tenets, seems hardly compatible with government funding, let alone from a state not exactly reknowned for its protection of fundamental freedoms. Ricky Ng-Adam is dubious:

It’s interesting to note that the original proposal only focuses on the tools and physical space without consideration for the community – the aspect which ought to be the most prevalent. But if the government hackerspaces become a reality one day and there is a divide, there will probably also be rules created to exclude hackerspaces such as XinCheJian.

As with all aspects of society, we are at the mercy of the central government who may choose either to support on a large scale a community with a positive impact, or to outright ban it if they perceive it as a threat to their power.

In reality, the Chinese government has an ambivalent attitude toward the non-profit organisations from Chinese civil society. It at once needs them but is also keenly aware they constitute fertile terrain for the growth of protest. Concerns were raised about the pressure tactics exercised by the state to harm some spaces, particularly financial tactics. To protect itself, XinCheJian is registered as a company. Many fear this grandiose announcement will only serve to further line the pockets of those close to power, in a country where corruption is rampant.

Concerns not (officially) shared by Hao Zhang, one of the organisers of Maker Carnival, and a founding member of Makerspace Beijing. He remains resolutely upbeat.

I don’t see any downsides in it. If universities, corporations or even any normal people can start hackerspaces, why can’t government? It’s even better that government supports it, since it will benefit way more people, and spread hacker culture more rapidly. I hope every one can do whatever they want (without harming other people) in the future.

That’s why I started doing all this hacker stuff: freedom.

Image Credits: Illustrations via Maker Carnival 2012, editing by Ophelia Noor for Owni /-) / Photo of Eric Pan and Mitch Altman via Mitch Altman (CC BY-SA)

This article was updated on 04/05/2012 to reflect the following corrections: The article stated that neither Ricky Ng-Adam or his wife MinLi were born in China. Neither were born in mainland China. The article also stated that Ng-Adam and his wife set up the XinCheJian hackerspace. They co-founded XinCheJian with David Li.

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