Future Tense

The Chinese Government Is Investing Heavily in the Maker Movement

A solder workshop at the Chaihuo hackerspace in Shenzhen, China

Photo by Mitch Altman/Flickr

China’s Communist Party government loves the DIY maker movement. “Innovation is no longer only promoted by the top-down initiatives of the world’s biggest companies,” enthused the state-run Liberation Daily newspaper, “but is being built from the bottom up by countless individuals such as amateurs, entrepreneurs and professionals. As [Chris] Anderson says, we are born makers.”

Anderson, former Wired editor and author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, is something of a rock star among Chinese makers and officials. 

Thanks to the Internet’s global sharing and the robust foundation of China’s electronics manufacturing industry, the Liberation Daily continued, “the future of China’s maker industry will be very competitive.” Another state media article added that authorities “should seize the current opportunity to introduce plans as soon as possible to support the development of the maker movement.”

Beijing is not the only government trying to get a piece of the maker action. Earlier this year the White House announced its own Maker Faire, adding that the Obama administration is partnering with companies, nonprofits, and communities to get the most out of the maker movement. More controversial, the Defense Advanced Projects Agency, or DARPA, has invested millions of dollars into the maker movement—for instance, putting $3.5 million into two TechShop locations. This has sparked concerns about the U.S. military exerting influence over the maker movement. Mitch Altman, co-founder of the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge, took a public stand against DARPA support of maker activities.

Both the United States and China embrace the maker movement’s potential for entrepreneurship, viewing this kind of grass-roots innovation as essential for staying competitive in the 21st -century economy. In China’s case, the official rhetoric has a sense of urgency: China no longer wants to be seen as the “world’s factory,” manufacturing goods that are designed elsewhere.

The 2012 Shanghai Maker Carnival had the support of the Communist Youth League. Shanghai officials proposed 100 government-supported “innovation houses.” Beijing’s Tsinghua University embraces maker-inspired education. Some hackerspaces in China get official support in the form of equipment, or help with paying the rent. Eric Pan, the Sichuan-born founder of Seeed Studio, explained official motivations: “They need some political efforts to prove that they are supporting innovation. And innovation can lead to start-ups. Start-ups can solve the problems of unemployment, and start-ups also have potential to become technology and design-intensive companies.”

But does top-down support violate the spirit of the maker movement? The movement, after all isn’t just about making money. Will Chinese authorities, even unintentionally, quash the spirit of risk, play and creativity that is supposedly at the heart of maker culture? Mitch Altman, the hacker who opposed DARPA funding, said that in China’s case, official support is not necessarily a bad thing. Altman said he has met Chinese officials who understand the importance of encouraging people to do what they love. “People in bureaucracies are encouraging hackerspaces because they know Chinese culture needs to change in order to have an economic future,” Altman said. This means acknowledging that people need to “love exploring their creativity, taking risks and playing.”

Chinese makers also seem to be cool with official support, in part reflecting a pragmatism that runs deep in China. Last month a Maker Faire in Shenzhen attracted an estimated 30,000 people. Let’s be clear: Nothing in China attracts 30,000 people unless the government approves. Bunnie Huang, who describes himself as a “maker who makes stuff in China,” told me plainly: “For anything to really exist in China you have to have government involvement.” Huang adds, “The big maker events have to be sponsored by a Communist Party arm to be legitimate.”

Chinese officials are famously nervous about mass gatherings, and words like movement and revolution can have dangerous undertones. The maker movement will be safe in China as long as officials view it primarily as an economic movement, rather than an idealistic one.

For the time being, some Chinese makers are not going to reject government support as a matter of principle. David Li, the founder of China’s first hackerspace Xinchejian, says he often receives visits from curious officials. “When there is government involvement, then we deal with it,” he said. “If they want to support it, support it. As long as we are not getting oppressed, their involvement is not a problem.”

Future Tense is a partner in the Green Electronics Challenge, a competition for makers from the U.S., China, and elsewhere to create something new from electronic waste. For more information and to enter, visit the Green Electronics Challenge website. Disclosure: Tsinghua University and Techshop are also partners in the Green Electronics Challenge, and Chris Anderson is a judge for the competition.