Shanzhai Style: Shadow Markets and Disruptive Technology
It would not be going too far to say that [shanzhai] ‘copycat’ has more of an anarchist spirit than any other word in the contemporary Chinese language.
The story of development is supposed to follow the narrative of progressive time, in which the unregulated markets of the informal economy are replaced by the more advanced, transparent, and formal institutions of capitalism.
This talk will explore the cyberpunk nature of shanzhai electronics to argue that there is a deep anti-evolutionism (or alternative futurism) at the heart of China’s rise. By operating through the flat networks of the economic underground, moreover, shanzhai thrives outside China’s typically vaunted state led model of growth.
As a culture and method of production, shanzhai, far from disappearing, has the potential to occupy the cutting edge of global high-tech. Fast, flexible, and unafraid to take risks, shanzhai ’s tendrils reach into the most obscure corners of the developing world. Shanzhai is a prime example of ‘disruptive technology;’ the name for low-tech experiments on the periphery that can revolutionize the core.
Shanzhai has extended beyond its origins in the manufacturing of cell phones (shanzhai ji or bandit phones) and has now come to designate a DIY, grass-roots ethos that has spread virally to constitute a creative culture of the street. The founders of Xinchejian, Shanghai’s first hacker-space, suggest that shanzhai be understood as the shadowy twin of ‘open innovation’, a concept many believe is currently transforming the very nature of innovation itself. Shanzhai, thus constitutes one of the great counter-currents of contemporary technological mutation. Far more than cheap, fake phones, the informal factories and markets of shanzhai production fundamentally unsettle what the ‘world of tomorrow’ might bring.