Panel: Makers Communities and the Production of Technology in China

The 16th Chinese Internet Research Conference



In recent years, the costs of advanced tools like laser cutting or 3D printing and electronics parts (micro-controllers, sensors, etc.) have been decreasing rapidly. At the same time, the surge in online activities worldwide has made available vast arrays of learning resources and materials for tinkering with technologies, with the central example of the diffusion and documentation of open-source electronics. Knowledge and tools that were once confidential have spread out, reaching new audiences outside R&D labs. This new distribution of information flows and tools has major strategic implications for companies and entire industries whose development has traditionally relied on their edge in technological innovation.

Inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, students, scholars, journalists, policy-makers… multiple groups of people have tried to explore, define, discuss, claim, understand and sometimes take advantage of this new shaping force. In 2011, Anderson, a famous Californian editorialist, popularized the term of maker movement, defining how the “makers” involved in inventing, using and defining these new opportunities were part of a new “industrial revolution” that will transform radically the practice of doing manufacturing, business and education. At its core, making was defined by Anderson as a hands-on approach to define new economic pathways. While this definition quickly gained momentum with policy-makers and executives, epistemic communities also formed around their interest for trying, tinkering, understanding, sharing and learning about the newly available materials and devices. Making was also framed as a form of empowerment and resistance to consumption and mass production where situated creativity prevails over economic incentives (Davies, 2017).

Vastly different practices and communities have been grouped under the unified umbrella of the maker movement. All over the world, local communities and businesses have organized places for makers to gather. Diverse appellations (hackerspaces, fablabs, makerspaces, etc) have emerged to qualify different organisational modes, business models, goals and affiliation to larger (global) networks. Moreover, the involvement of specific people and organisations as well as unique characteristics from regions, cities and countries have shaped differences between those spaces.

In China, the early hacker and makerspaces positioned themselves simultaneously as part of a this seeming global movement and as intervening in established (often Western) forms of innovation and design (Li & Lindtner, 2012, Lindtner 2015). Like the term maker, the Chinese term chuangke (创客) was created by China’s maker and open source hardware advocates to position their work both in conversation with and against global and national discourses of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity discourse (Lindtner 2015). . The fairly young term chuangke was later taken up by Chinese public policy makers, and became endorsed by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in 2015 as part of the 10-year plan on industrial and economic reforms Made in China 2025 (Lindtner 2017). The emerging figure of the chuangke was introduced as innovative thinker and young tech entrepreneur both Chinese and global, leading the new Chinese economy. After the co-optation of shanzhai factories by governments and international firms (Renaud, 2015), , makers in China have been propelled in a new position of innovation leadership with the mission to reboost and diversify the Chinese economy.

The Chinese maker has, as Wang Jing (2016) writes, a double identity:the entrepreneur and the activist. With innovations coming from the communities and individuals, the government is aiming to transform China’s image from “the world’s factory to a creative powerhouse” to be recognized as an “innovation-oriented nation”. These policies are the continuation of previous governmental initiatives to foster innovation and creativity through urban development (Keane, 2006; 2009). In cities all over China, spaces have appeared (and sometimes already disappeared) following the government’s Mass Creativity, Mass Entrepreneurship (zhongchuang) program and its Mass Makerspaces. Spaces that existed prior to public intervention had to redefine themselves in the light of this new co-optation. The unanticipated rise of public interest has generated lots of attention and led to situations that were sometimes difficult to cope with for such small organizations. Under the generic term of makerspaces (chuangke kongjian), many Chinese entrepreneurs found new homes sometimes more similar to office spaces or incubators, than to actual fabrication or prototyping labs.

These large public investments and policies have transformed the landscape of making in China. Spaces have opened and closed, people have joined and left, organisations have changed or disappeared. Moreover, cities in China (for instance Shenzhen, Chengdu or Shanghai) have positioned themselves as strategic players of the global maker movement. Chinese public figures and companies have emerged as global representatives of new ways of turning makers into entrepreneurs (makerPro). Beyond the maker-enthusiast, large industrial stakeholders (Apple, Tesla, Google, etc.) are increasingly recognizing some locations in China as hubs for innovation in manufacturing. Moreover, China is now positioning itself as an exporter of public policy for technological innovation and manufacturing, notably through the Belt and Road Initiative.

The tension between large institutional interests and local dynamics around communities have put makers and makerspaces in a unique position in China’s transforming technological and industrial landscape. By consider making, this panel aims at providing insights about recent developments in China’s economic policies, citizenship, nationhood and geopolitical positioning. We will offer an account of the unfolding of events during the last decade, as well as their latest developments. We will emphasize the projected or observed role of makers in the growing importance of China as a key global actor of technology. The discussions will focus on the implications of maker culture for future research about production of technologies in China.


Reflections on the Development and Aspirations of Shenzhen’s Makerspaces from the Perspective of a Craft Researcher/Practitioner - Justin Marshall, Northumbria University

Makers in China: a model to export? - Monique Bolli, Institute for Area and Global Studies, EPFL

Discussant : Silvia Lindtner, University of Michigan

Chair : Clément Renaud, Institute for Area and Global Studies, EPFL

Read the abstracts and more info on the CIRC Website.


  • 22 May 2018, 14:30-16:00
  • The Leiden Asia Centre, Leiden University Institute for Area Studies
  • Kamerling Onnes Building, Room A008

Cover image from (c) Mahart22 / Wikipedia

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