Future Tense

Made in China

How new Chinese innovators are transcending a loaded phrase.

A bunch of Made in China labels repeating over and over.

Excerpted from Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang. Published by FSG Originals x Logic, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Copyright © 2020 Xiaowei Wang. All rights reserved.  

On the windowsill of the house I’m staying at, there is a tiny toy bird. It fits in the palm of my hand and is made out of plastic and Styrofoam, with some natural materials tacked on to it—a tail made out of wood, seeds for eyes, pieces of a pine cone turned into a regal plume. On the bottom of the bird, a small round sticker says Made in China.

Even out here, in a small Northern California town with a thousand people, the words are inescapable. I feel flushed with embarrassment as I place the bird back on the windowsill, but I keep knocking it over during the rest of my visit.

During the stirrings of the Chinese economic boom in the 1990s, my uncle helped run an import-export business that sold millions of small birds like these. My uncle would frequently fly from China’s Pearl River Delta to the United States for trade shows, bringing sample boxes of fake birds, fake flowers, small baskets, little Styrofoam mushrooms, and gnomes. He’d stay with my family for a few days, enjoying my mother’s cooking instead of the American fast food available on the road. Sometimes he would leave extra boxes of these trade show samples with us, no longer useful once deals were made. Stuck to them were always the words Made in China. These three words held a strong gravity, cast a magical spell. I would marvel at these items, sensing the strange, enchanting edges of materialism.

A few of these small birds ended up at a street stall in Boston that another aunt of mine ran on the weekends. On a low table with a white tablecloth she laid out her wares: jade pendants, wooden fans, all kinds of chinoiserie you’d find at stores with names like Eastern Trading Co. I brought her these trade show leftovers, on a weekend when I was helping her. I had schemes to help my aunt sell more of her goods. As a recent immigrant, she knew very little English, so I wrote several signs to put in front of the items, in flowery language: beautiful, exotic, handmade, jade pendant.

Later in the day, an older couple briefly stopped. I beamed. They smiled back and after examining our table, they left, the husband pushing his wife along. “Don’t fall for that stuff, it’s cheap, made in China,” I heard him say. For a moment, I didn’t know if he meant the objects on the table or me.

As a 10-year-old kid, I found his reaction perplexing and nonsensical. In the 1990s, what was seen as Chinese culture was still a product of the American imagination. I was made fun of every day for the “weird food” I’d bring for lunch. Chinese restaurants were still serving General Tso’s chicken and chop suey, without the elevation of San Francisco’s Mister Jiu’s. People who stopped at our stand didn’t even know what jade was and often asked me if it was glass. Even if our stall sold the highest-quality jade and we demanded more money for it, customers would be unable to judge the quality themselves, and would become convinced that we were trying to swindle them. A lot of people already thought we were trying to swindle them, by virtue of being Chinese. So of course we sold the lowest-quality jade, hoping at least someone, maybe entranced by the green-blue swirl of color, would find the low price a little easier to entertain and make a harmless impulse purchase.

Made in China became seared into my psyche as a symbol of corruptness. The phrase meant something shoddily crafted, made by people who were mindless drones in a factory bent on gaining profit by cheating foreigners out of an extra cent or two. I could imagine these people at one of the factories my uncle worked with, eyes glazed over, mindlessly gluing pine cone pieces onto a Styrofoam bird. It reflected the laziness of the Chinese, who were unwilling to consider the notion of perfection and craft, people who were culturally unable to be diligent about work and always wanted to cut corners. It was made by people who looked like me, people who could be related to me—distant cousins and aunts from my family’s ancestral home. My childhood optimism pitted against the man’s proclamation transformed Made in China into the three most shameful words I could think of.

For millions of people across rural China, Made in China changed lives. It allowed young women to move to cities and experience freedom from overbearing, patriarchal elders for the first time, as Leslie T. Chang and Ching Kwan Lee document in their work on factory girls—young women who moved to cities by themselves, working in factories, living in factory dorms. It restructured families, labor, and political power. It was innovation in the purest sense of the word: an economic and technological shift that reshaped the social fabric of the country, for better and worse. And now, Made in China is being redefined again, this time by the countryside.

In the 1960s, the historian Joseph Needham proposed a question: “Why did China never develop modern science?” Despite forward-thinking achievements such as complex geometry as early as 100 BCE, China failed to develop science and technology any further after the 16th century CE. Needham’s question continues to haunt discussions in the United States on Chinese innovation.

Try searching “China” and “innovation” online, and instead of finding articles about innovations from China, you’ll see articles that examine “Why China can’t innovate.” The answers ultimately all converge on what Needham saw as a key barrier to Chinese innovation: its culture. Needham saw the ancient Taoism that haunted China as the problem—the sleepy Eastern belief that the universe is already perfect: We simply have to maintain the balance. This type of thinking was antithetical to the project of innovation.

The word innovation is laden with baggage. It gives rise to a whole industry built on conferences, media, and thought leadership. It’s not clear what exactly innovation is, but whatever it is, there is apparently a paucity of this golden resource everywhere except Silicon Valley.

In English, innovation was not always regarded as positively as it is now. Its original form in Latin means “to renew, to introduce something as new,” perhaps subliminally acknowledging that the category “entirely new” is difficult to define. The word innovation was derogatory in the age of monarchs, as it referred to political and economic change that could bring down empires, threatening the status of kings and elites. But slowly, throughout the Industrial Revolution, the phrase began to be seen as more positive when engineering culture took shape. In the early 1900s, Thorstien Veblen advocated the idea that technology was the output, the product of a group of male workers he termed engineers. And while engineers worked to create technology, it was the company owners, the grand industrialists, who reaped the profits of innovation.

Contemporary innovation in the United States and China appears to strengthen rather than threaten the political and economic order of the world. Riffling through recent coverage on innovation shows the most innovative products appear to be varying forms of management through technology—managing people, cars, take-out orders, or goods. Our modern-day monarchs, corporations and CEOs, are unthreatened by innovation. It raises the question: If innovation is so disruptive, why would it be embraced by people with so much to lose?

There are Asian women in STEM, and then there’s Naomi Wu—she’s brilliant, but even more remarkable is her fearlessness in letting her brilliance be admired. Naomi was born human, but she is a self-proclaimed cyborg, a definition made obvious when you watch her videos. She’s forthcoming about her cyborg body modifications, including breast implants that light up when she dons a special corset she’s designed and built.

Her videos are energetic and witty. Some cover her projects and are instructional, showcasing her engineering prowess to an international audience: a Wi-Fi mini drone inspired by Neuromancer; a DIY retro Game Boy kit. Other videos show real-life Shenzhen on the ground, as she visits makerspaces and electronics markets.

While Asian women make up a huge portion of engineering professions in the United States, they are often left out of management and leadership roles. In fact, being Asian creates a disadvantage to becoming a leader in tech—Asians are the group least likely to be promoted from individual contributor (i.e., an engineer) to management. This data point should not be taken as a cry of inequity for Asian Americans—it’s instead reflective of systemic ways that racial categories work under capitalism in the United States. Asians are presented as soft-spoken, hardworking, and quiet, the “model minority,” something that has always sent an alarming message to me: that you can have restricted success if you just comply with the rules, even if the rules are problematic. In a harsher light, these characteristics also signal obedience and acquiescence, characteristics that seem innate to the mindless drone workers I imagined in my uncle’s factory.

In the United States, Asians are rarely seen as innovative. Because, after all, to be innovative is to be bold, daring, and brash. Within popular tech discourse, these qualities are more often ascribed to Western white men—heroic inventors with astonishing capacities, like John Galt from Atlas Shrugged. The more time I spend with Naomi, I realize: How often is it that a person of color is said to be innovating? How often in the United States do we hear about any other country innovating, especially a non-Western country?

I am struck by Naomi’s relationship to machines, and to her own body. In the same way hardware can have different enclosures, she says, she sees her own body as an enclosure. She performs body modification because she believes “you have to give the computer what it wants.” She anticipates a world of computer vision algorithms on video platforms that increase rankings based on the content of the video, with platforms placing “attractive women” first in search results. Naomi wants to show up first. In an ideal universe, she says, she would have a shop at Huaqiangbei, the famed electronics market of Shenzhen, known as “the market of the future.” She would sell body parts, just like computer cases. Want a better arm? Ask her. A different set of eyes? She’s got the hookup.

Sitting with Naomi in the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, a makerspace full of soldering irons and electrical wires, there’s a clear irony. Naomi grew up in Shenzhen. And while many of her classmates, the women she grew up with, now solder in factories, Naomi is soldering in internet videos. While her classmates are seen as mindless drones, she’s heralded as a forward-thinking, DIY “maker,” part of a broader hacker movement that emphasizes innovation and STEM education.

For a long time, Shenzhen was where so many of America’s most innovative products were built, and these products were made by the women Naomi grew up with. It is also the place that popularized shanzhai—originally a derogatory Cantonese term for knockoffs or pirated goods. The word shanzhai, directly translated, means “mountain stronghold”—since people from rural mountain villages couldn’t afford real Louis Vuitton or officially produced DVDs of Friends, the shanzhai versions came from low-end, poorly run pirate factories. These shanzhai products remain proof to the West that China cannot innovate, it can only copy.

David Li, the founder of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, along with the scholar Silvia Lindtner, is bringing this idea of shanzhai as imitation into question. They have been researching the innovation ecosystem for the past few years, and they propose the term “new shanzhai.” David explained to me that part of the original shanzhai economy began with copying DVDs. Since copied DVDs couldn’t be played by brand-name players, a whole set of products were created to support the copied DVDs. From there, a wildly creative ecosystem appeared.

New shanzhai is open-source on hyperspeed, an unapologetic confrontation with Western ideas of intellectual property. The designers and engineers of new shanzhai products build on each other’s work, co-opting, repurposing, and remixing in a decentralized way. At Huaqiangbei electronics market, where Naomi wants her body-parts stall, companies compete and cooperate with one another in a fast-paced dance. Wandering through the stalls of the market, you’ll find everything imaginable for sale, and many things you never imagined: holograph generators, 3D printers, karaoke mics with speakers built in, laser cutters, simple cell phones with modular, replaceable parts that require little equipment to open and repair (the opposite of an iPhone).

Shanzhai’s past has connotations of knockoff iPhones. New shanzhai stands in stark contrast to the increasingly proprietary nature of American technology, pushing us to think about access, maintenance, and the conflation of intellectual property and civility. After all, intellectual property rights are not intrinsic. They were created in 18th-century England, and tied into the idea of ownership as defining existence—the right to own as the right to be human. And in a time when American corporations are threatening university students researching new technologies with patent lawsuits, shanzhai feels more urgent than ever.

Outside the well-funded confines of places like Silicon Valley, for the rest of the world that can’t afford $400 3D-modeling software or $300 phones that can be repaired only by experts, shanzhai is desperately needed. How can you even begin to innovate if you can’t afford the tools needed for innovation?

Shanzhai holds the power to decolonize technology. For so long, technology expertise was held by a small circle, a technical elite. “Technology transfer” is the process that many development experts describe, the seeding of tech products, software, assistance, and advice from the metropolitan United States to places like China, Kenya, and even rural America. These projects have had mixed success, often leaving communities dependent on proprietary technology. But in order for technology absorption to happen, such places need the ecosystem, tools, and knowledge to begin to create their own products, tailored to their contexts. Shanzhai pushes the boundaries of what we currently think of as innovation and argues for the right not only to use a device or software but also to collaboratively alter, change, and reclaim it—a shanzhai economy instead of an innovation economy.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.