China’s Maker Movement
What Is It and Why Does No-One Talk about It Anymore?
In the spring of 2012, Zhiyi (a pseudonym), the owner of a grocery store in a small village in northern China, decided to move to Shenzhen in search of a job. After holding several temporary positions, he settled on working as a driver. One day, while in his car listening to the radio, he heard William, the founder of Flora Makerspace (both pseudonyms), explaining what a ‘makerspace’ (创客空间) was. This was how Zhiyi learned about the existence of spaces dedicated to ‘makers’ (创客)—people who enjoyed engaging in ‘hands-on’ work and playing with digital technology to realise their ideas and build hardware products (Dougherty 2013; Anderson 2013).
This immediately aroused Zhiyi’s interest:
I never liked selling food and drinks, but I needed to make a living. What I really like is engineering. As we sold food, we needed to deal with refrigerators, cold storage, and compressors. I was naturally attracted to these machines … I wanted to learn more from an engineer, but my village was conservative; there was a saying, ‘teaching the apprentice starves the teacher’ … After I came to Shenzhen, I was disappointed because I could not enter the tech industry with my background … I always imagined that there should be a place for me in Shenzhen. Although I did not understand what a maker or a makerspace was at that time, when I listened to William’s radio interview, I immediately felt it was exactly what I wanted. I hurriedly wrote down the phone number of Flora Makerspace and I called them when I got off work … I have since gone there whenever I have time. (Interview, August 2020)
Zhiyi’s story illustrates the emergence of China’s maker movement. The first makerspaces started appearing in the early 2010s in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing (Xue 2018), but the maker culture of individual empowerment and open-source production remained relatively unknown in China until about 2015. William, a pioneering maker-entrepreneur who often travelled overseas to attend Maker Faires, conventions of do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts initiated by Make Magazine, was fascinated by the idea of ‘making’, and in 2011 established the Flora Makerspace in Shenzhen, so that ‘every ordinary person [could] use open-source technologies to create, innovate, and solve the problems around them’ (Interview, August 2020). For many grassroots makers, makerspaces provide not only access to machines, components, and tools for prototypes and production, but also an inclusive community space where people with similar hobbies can communicate, learn, share knowledge and skills, and create their own technologies. According to Zhiyi, the time he spent at Flora Makerspace before 2015 was ‘pure joy’:
The makerspace was very small at that time, only a room of 10 square metres … I often went there to make friends and learn things … I am very grateful to Flora Makerspace, as it offered people the opportunity to participate in free exchange activities. No matter which field or industry you are in, you can exchange ideas, and this breaks the barriers between different industries. Although I was a novice in technology, I had been selling [groceries] for many years, and I also had my expertise. I felt I was being welcomed there. (Interview, August 2020)
The makers one would encounter at Shenzhen’s makerspaces were mostly electronics and DIY enthusiasts, who shared a commitment to embracing open-source tools, ideas, knowledge, and product design. They defined themselves by a shared idea of what their technology and production should look like and created out of joy and individual initiative. For example, a maker who was a Beijing opera enthusiast made a music box with opera characters dancing on top, while another with a passion for music created a cosmetic cream box that can record and play hip-hop (see Figures 2 and 3).
Things began to change in 2015, when former premier Li Keqiang officially endorsed the maker culture (State Council 2015a, 2015b). Grassroots makers recall how sudden was the increase in attention, with their status ‘elevated’ by diktat overnight (Interview with a manager in a Shenzhen-based makerspace, September 2020). But why did the Chinese State decide to promote the maker movement? And how has this endorsement affected it? To address these questions, I relied on semi-structured interviews with makers, technopreneurs, and incubator and makerspace operators in Shenzhen in 2020 and 2021. The names of all interlocutors and makerspaces mentioned in the text are pseudonyms.
I also conducted participant observation as an unpaid intern and volunteer in two Shenzhen makerspaces, which were home to a group of local, returnee, and foreign makers. From July to September 2020, I did a two-month internship at Flora Makerspace, which is owned by high-tech start-up Flora Tech. Both the makerspace and the company were in Shenzhen’s Nanshan District, an area with a high concentration of large companies and start-ups. My responsibilities during the internship included research, translation, and assisting others, and I went to the offices of Flora Makerspace or Flora Tech almost daily.
Additionally, from December 2020 to February 2021, while I was doing an internship at another start-up, I often visited the Try-Out Makerspace, in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei Subdistrict, an area famous for its electronics marketplaces where technopreneurs and makers can easily obtain necessary components for their prototypes. Many makers at Try-Out Makerspace referred to it as a ‘heaven for electronics’. I assisted the makerspace with their biweekly tech barbecue and other events.
The State-Led Maker Movement
During an official inspection tour in Shenzhen in January 2015, former premier Li Keqiang visited what the state considered important sites of technological innovation, including a makerspace called Firewood Makerspace (柴火创客空间) (see Figure 4). Li lauded Firewood for its entrepreneurial spirit and positive effects on the Chinese economy. In his words, as quoted in the state news media: ‘Firewood Makerspace showed the vitality of mass entrepreneurship and innovation, and such creativity will serve as a lasting engine for China’s economic growth in the future’ (China Youth Daily 2015). Li asserted that he was a maker himself, and encouraged the grassroots masses to join the maker movement: ‘The fire burns high when everybody adds wood to it [众人拾柴火焰高]’ (China Youth Daily 2015).
After returning to Beijing, Li immediately turned making into a national economic development strategy, which was later translated into policies centred on ‘mass entrepreneurship and innovation’ (大众创业 万众创新). Numerous policies, initiatives, and programs have been implemented at both national and subnational levels (see, for instance, State Council 2015a, 2015b). In this context, China’s maker movement has become part of a larger politico-economic project of grassroots entrepreneurship and innovation aimed at ensuring the country’s continuing economic growth and employment (Lindtner 2015, 2020). This agenda is also evident in an announcement by the Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Committee (2020):
The goal of makerspaces is to lower the threshold of entrepreneurship, improve the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, and to stimulate the vitality of innovation and entrepreneurship in society. With their professional services, makerspaces shall encourage entrepreneurs to apply new technologies, develop new products, expand new markets, and cultivate new business formats.
Accordingly, makerspaces have become a means to boost entrepreneurship. For instance, many of the 498 new government-sanctioned national makerspaces established in Shenzhen in 2020—such as Tencent Makerspace (which incubates start-ups related to Tencent’s business) or Shenzhen University Makerspace (which incubates start-ups founded by Shenzhen University students)—were founded by leading Chinese firms, state-owned enterprises, and state institutions (Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Committee 2020).
Responses from Grassroots Makers
The increased role of the state in the maker movement has elicited negative reactions from the grassroots maker community in China. As Hiro, a Japanese maker who has been active in Shenzhen’s makerspaces since 2008, told me:
In the first three months of 2015, [a maker friend] was very happy about China becoming a maker nation. However, he then realised that many [groups] just wanted to make money using the name ‘maker’, but they did not understand who makers were or what the maker spirit was … I was also in Shenzhen at that time, working for one month for the Maker Faire Shenzhen. It [the maker movement] was also my dream. I was so excited that China had become a maker country. However, that was a misunderstanding … Not only ‘maker’ cafés [see Figure 5], ‘maker’ kindergartens, and other venues started using the name ‘maker’, but also leading firms such as Alibaba and Tencent presented themselves as ‘maker’ companies! (Interview, February 2021)
As the movement shifted, the term ‘maker’ came to be associated with business opportunities and the desire for economic profit. Leading Chinese firms such as Alibaba began to run all types of shopping festivals under the name ‘Maker Faire’, aiming to motivate Chinese consumers to shop on their digital platforms. When it came to start-ups, businesspeople frequently asserted themselves as makers in applications and pitches for financial subsidies from government agencies and investments from private equities, aiming to benefit from the maker movement.
These developments contrasted sharply with many of the ideals of the original maker movement. The intent of many of these new self-proclaimed ‘makers’ was not to create things with technology, but to get rich by association. As one Chinese entrepreneur in Shenzhen told me:
From my personal experience, around 80 per cent of self-proclaimed ‘makers’ were ‘businessmen’, while 20 per cent were real makers. When a city’s maker culture is strong, I think that the proportion of commercial companies should be relatively small. However, in Chinese Maker Faires, 90 per cent of the attendees were commercial companies in recent years. (Interview, August 2020)
According to the World Bank Database, China witnessed a remarkable surge in new business registrations, with over 245 million new companies being registered in 2016 (World Bank 2016). This marked a peak from 2010 to 2020. Mr Yi, an incubator director who works closely with the Science and Technology Innovation Committee of Shenzhen, expressed concerns about this figure, referring to many ‘high-tech entrepreneurial teams’ established in 2015 and 2016 as ‘deceptive’ (弄虚作假):
We incubators thought the Chinese capital market was overheated—everyone felt they should become an entrepreneur. We always insisted that entrepreneurship is a rational choice, but that was not the case at that time. Innovative projects, especially those with an original idea, were relatively rare, while most of the projects were kind of ‘you copy me, and I will copy you back’. I think too many copycats were in the market. (Interview, May 2020)
In an ‘economy of appearances’, many who aim to make a quick monetary return primarily focus on ‘dramatic performance’ and ‘the self-conscious making of a spectacle’, knowing that ‘the more spectacular the conjuring, the more possible [was] an investment frenzy’ (Tsing 2005: 57). In one instance from my fieldwork, an entrepreneur who had received a local government subsidy for high-tech projects said: ‘Our product has nothing to do with AI [artificial intelligence], but we have to put “AI technology” as our business function and scope when making a funding application’ (Fieldnote, August 2021).
In addition to speculators, some hobbyist makers also tried to take advantage of the shift to realise their entrepreneurial aspirations. For example, Jiasheng, a drone enthusiast and civil servant, decided to quit his stable government job to become an entrepreneur as the official rhetoric around the maker movement was heating up. He described his subsequent experience in the drone industry:
When mass entrepreneurship and innovation were very popular in 2015 and 2016, there were hundreds of companies engaged in making drones in Shenzhen. Many people came to me at that time asking to start a business together, because if you had a background somewhat related to the industry, and as long as your marketing skills were decent, you could get investment with one PowerPoint [presentation]. In the end, a wealthy businessman invested in a drone project and asked me to lead a 10-person team to develop the prototype. Two years later, we almost completed the prototype, but the project ended unsuccessfully because the capital market situation then was totally different. (Interview, August 2020)
The statistics support Jiasheng’s account. In 2015, start-ups in China’s drone industry received a total of US$450 million in investment funding, with more than half of the deals awarded to projects at the seed stage (Sina Tech 2016a). Among these early-stage ventures, many entrepreneurs were hobbyist makers like Jiasheng, who had difficulty achieving technological breakthroughs. In Jiasheng’s case, the high cost of research and development and the lack of technological advantage eventually made his team decide that continuing was too risky. Jiasheng saw the decision to shut the business as partly a result of the capital market change from 2015 to 2018. He described the survival rate among his peers in Shenzhen’s drone industry as ‘extremely low’: [A]mong 10,000 projects, the survival rate in the capital winter was no more than several dozen’ (Interview, August 2020).
Indeed, by 2018, the so-called capital carnival (资本狂欢) led by the state-sponsored maker movement had been replaced with a ‘capital winter’ (资本寒冬), in which fundraising activities significantly dropped. As shown in Figure 6, investment deals in early-stage start-ups (mainly at the seed stage) declined considerably in 2018 and 2019, as investors preferred mature start-ups, which could count on a relatively stable market share and had a lower risk of bankruptcy (Huang and He 2021).
Dr Ning, an AI entrepreneur, noted the change in the capital market:
The current AI products have passed the bubble of the venture capital period. Unlike three years ago , when, as long as you were a student in AI and you were willing to do a venture project, everyone would like to invest money in it, everyone now knows that it [an AI project] is not so reliable [for financial return], because AI requires substantial capital investment and the cost to complete an AI project is very high. (Interview, August 2020)
Many speculative AI projects and technologically immature maker projects accordingly disappeared from the market. Most makerspaces that functioned as co-working spaces or incubators for high-tech start-ups closed between 2016 and 2018 due to a lack of mature business models and excess inventory, disappearing as suddenly as they had appeared (Sina Tech 2016b; Xue 2018).
The ‘Death’ of Maker Culture in China
In the Huaqiangbei Museum, a space established in 2021 to record the unique culture of the electronics market, photos of some makers at Try-Out Makerspace and their DIY products were displayed in the exhibition hall celebrating grassroots technological innovation. Nic, a member of Try-Out Makerspace, believed putting maker culture in a museum signified its death. He said emotionally:
It’s dying! Who would put living things in a museum? People put things from the past in there … Have you seen any museum that is about things that still exist? It’s amusing … What is fundamental [for the government] are technology, science, AI, the financial sector, etcetera; makers are not the priority. (Interview, February 2021)
Nic’s sentiments about the ‘death’ of the maker culture in Shenzhen did not come out of nowhere. In early 2021, Try-Out Makerspace was forced out of its rented office in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei Subdistrict. Their landlord, a local government agency, said it was due to office renovations and asked them to empty the space within one month. Many makers were then compelled to work from home for a few months.
Why did the Chinese Government seemingly withdraw its endorsement of the maker movement? One reason is the emergence of the above-mentioned ‘economy of appearances’ (Tsing 2005) because of the Chinese State’s infatuation with new technologies of which it has a limited grasp. Realising their own shortcomings, Chinese policymakers moved to make educational meritocracy a key metric in selecting ‘real’ high-tech companies. A landmark moment in this shift came in 2018, when the State Council issued its ‘Opinions on Promoting the High-Quality Development of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to Create an Upgraded Version of Innovation and Entrepreneurship’ (国务院关于推动创新创业高质量发展打造‘双创’升级版的意见), a set of policy guidelines that marked a new stage in the mass campaign for ‘high-level entrepreneurship and innovation, [and] high-quality development’ (高水平双创 高质量发展). This new direction is stated clearly in an article published that year by the State Council:
If one starts a project only to make money and to be rich overnight, it is impossible to truly achieve valuable innovation. High-level and high-quality entrepreneurship and innovation mean that we must get rid of a pure capital orientation, and pay more attention to the demand of industries, and aim to create value for customers. Entrepreneurship and innovation are like ‘gold and sand’ [大浪淘沙]. When the sand is washed away, only the gold is left. (Sheng 2018)
In this article, ‘real’ high-tech entrepreneurial projects are compared to ‘gold’, while pseudo-high-tech start-ups are ‘sand’ that should be ‘washed away’. It criticised businesspeople who played ‘capital games’, making polished presentations only to gain profit, while falsely branding themselves high-tech entrepreneurs who could produce ‘core technology breakthroughs’ (Sheng 2018).
In this manner, the Chinese State seemed to acknowledge the drawbacks of the centrally planned maker movement, which had resulted in the emergence of many low-quality start-ups. It then repositioned the focus of mass entrepreneurship and innovation to high-level projects characterised by a ‘mature mentality, rational thinking, and actions aimed at market competition’ (China Daily 2018). The state accordingly tightened its requirements for entrepreneurship subsidies. As Mr Yu, the former director of a university incubator program, told me: ‘Unlike the common large-scale subsidies of a few years ago, the government is now more rational and subsidises only the best’ (Interview, May 2020).
The emphasis of Chinese Government agencies on educational meritocracy has its drawbacks. Felix, a foreign entrepreneur in Shenzhen, told me:
For the Chinese Government, the term ‘AI company’ is so important, while the market and the business model are not so important. I have also found that [educational] qualifications matter too much: how many PhDs do you have in your company? How many master’s degrees do you have? In result, some companies just look at one’s education [profile in the hiring process]. It doesn’t lay out what the actual skills are. (Interview, September 2020)
In this way, despite the policy shift to educational meritocracy in issuing government subsidies, the ‘economy of appearances’ (Tsing 2005) remains in China’s high-tech industries.
After this shift, many of those engaging in tech entrepreneurship were ‘high-level talent from overseas’ (海外高层次人才). Responding to my question ‘Do you define yourself as a maker?’, many who returned to China after 2018 were unfamiliar with the terms ‘maker’ and ‘making’, and asked me what I meant. Others were openly reluctant to define themselves as a ‘maker’, believing makers were failed entrepreneurs. Evidently, public perceptions of makers have changed dramatically since the inception of the mass campaign.
On the other hand, the maker community has returned to their lifestyles prior to 2015. In 2021, I encountered several makers who were still actively engaged in their electronic craft in the few remaining makerspaces in Shenzhen. For example, Zhiyi continued to visit Flora Makerspace weekly to DIY his products. Following the dissolution of his company, Jiasheng established a one-person consultancy offering drone navigation services. What motivated them to persist in ‘making’ was their passion and fascination with open-source prototypes. Despite the changes in the policy landscape, these makers found personal fulfilment in pursuing their creative endeavours.
Ultimately, the top-down shifts in China’s maker movement have led to the emergence and disappearance of various groups of ‘makers’, including speculative enterprises and pseudo-high-tech projects in pursuit of individual interests by any means. This highlights not only the limitations of the governing approach to entrepreneurship in China but also the frictions that underpin China’s high-tech boom.
Featured Image: Makers in Chaihuo makerspace, Shenzhen, August 2020. PC: Olivia Yijian Liu.