In Shenzhen, 山寨 (shanzhai) has a different meaning than mountain stronghold—yet the term so eloquently expresses a continuity, a history, and a genesis. Shanzhai is a Cantonese term, originally used as a derogatory word for knock-offs — because people from rural mountain villages couldn’t afford real Louis Vuitton or officially produced DVDs of Friends. As a result, there was the cheaper, 山寨 version that was a mere imitation, coming from low-end, poorly run 山寨 factories.
David, along with the scholar Silvia Lindtner, has been researching the innovation ecosystem in Shenzhen for the past few years, and they have proposed the term “new shanzhai.” Part of the original shanzhai economy began with copying DVDs. Since copied DVDs couldn’t be played by name-brand players (an attempt to control piracy or simply due to DVD quality issues), a whole set of products were created to support the copied DVDs — and from there, a wildly creative ecosystem appeared.
This is the new shanzhai. It’s open-source on hyperspeed — where creators build on each other’s work, co-opt, repurpose, and remix in a decentralized way, creating original products like a cell phone with a compass that points to Mecca (selling well in Islamic countries) and simple cell phones that have modular, replaceable parts which need little equipment to open or repair.
Shanzhai’s past has connotations of knock-off iPhones and fake Louis Vuitton bags. New shanzhai offers a glimpse into the future: its strength is in extreme open-source, which stands in stark contrast to the increasingly proprietary nature of American technology. As startups in the Bay Area scramble to make buckets of money, being in this other Greater Bay Area makes it clear why there’s so much rhetoric about China overtaking the US. It is.
So writes Xiaowei R. Wang in her Letter from Shenzhen. Its a timely reminder of the way innovation and invention can play out when there are no secrets left to keep. Pragmatism implies that such extreme openness is not the only path open for intellectual property, but its success in the hyper competitive Chinese market does provide us with clear evidence that such a path is viable and feasible.