[-empyre-] innovation everywhere

Cara Wallis carawallis at gmail.com
Mon May 14 12:43:10 EST 2012

I’d like more specifically to take up Anne’s suggestion that we think about
“innovation everywhere” by talking about the shanzhaiji (copy cat mobile
phone) culture that is centered around the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone
near Hong Kong. Since 2008, Jack Linchuan Qiu (at the Chinese University of
Hong Kong) and I have been researching the social, economic, and
institutional factors – including financial constraints, flexible
manufacturing techniques, and translocal as well as transborder population
flows – that have contributed to the emergence of *shanzhaiji* as an
alternative media technology, and one that inverts the traditional balance
of power in innovation networks in the domestic and global market.

Shanzhaiji are inexpensive cell phones that come with numerous functions –
cameras, mp3 and video players, radios, televisions, dual SIM cards
(which allows
users to switch between two phone numbers within the same phone), and in
their funkier versions, even with shavers. Some look like the latest models
produced by the global manufacturers, but they can also come in cute or
kitschy designs (e.g., in the shape of a pack of cigarettes, sports cars,
Hello Kitty, etc.). They sometimes can be counterfeit phones bearing a
brand-name but most have no brand, their own made-up brand, or mimic a
global brand but with an intentional misspelling (e.g., Nokia becomes Nckia
or iPhone becomes Hiphone).

Shanzhaiji are an interesting example of innovation from the bottom up for
a number of reasons. They are called “copycat” phones but this doesn’t
quite do them justice. It is not coincidental that they emerged in
Shenzhen, which epitomizes the kind of free market fundamentalism that
emerged in China under Deng Xiaoping. They are part of an entire industrial
system that is quite sophisticated in terms of technology; research and
design (e.g., the dual SIM card); production (new models are churned out
extremely quickly), and distribution. You can find them all over China as
well as in other parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Because of
this international distribution, shanzhaiji often come with 10 or 14
languages inside. How they are produced and used is also indicative of the
local, regional, and international linkages of shanzhaiji. Rural-to-urban
migrants in China work in the factories that produce shanzhaiji and migrant
workers often use these low-end smartphones, but traders from a range of
countries buy them in bulk and sell them back home as well.

Unlike innovation models based on corporate secrets, in embracing the DIY
spirit, shanzhaiji manufacturers often freely share information with each
other and have special websites devoted to shanzhai technology production
(not just mobile phones), often with a very nationalist spirit.

If this post sounds rather celebratory regarding shanzhaiji, I do want to
acknowledge that shanzhaiji definitely raise issues of copyright violation,
but it’s a bit more complex than just a blatant disregard for copyright.
Shanzhaiji manufacturers who conduct their own R&D independently often have
to send the products to market without obtaining government approvals
because the approval process is usually very slow and cumbersome unless the
company is willing to bribe the government officials in charge. In this
way, inefficiency and corruption within state agencies have a major impact
on the materialization of shanzhaiji.

For an entertaining shanzhaiji advertisement from a few years back, check
out: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNDg4MTc1NzY=.html).

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