I got home today from a month-long trip to China that I organized <https://www.noisebridge.net/wiki/NoisebridgeChinaTrip2>. 10 of us traveled around, visiting all of the hackerspaces currently in China, exhibiting at the Shenzhen Mini Maker Faire and giving talks and workshops and exhibiting at the big Maker Carnival China 2012 in Beijing. We also visited my manufacturer in Shanghai, where my TV-B-Gone remote controls are made.
Lots of photos:
This was my 10th trip to China. I was there with my mom in 1998, and then every year since I started making TV-B-Gone remotes there in 2004. It has been very interesting to get a snapshot impression of how China has changed through the years.
Though not very accurate, it is possible to have a sense of some very real change happening in China.
In 1998, there was capitalism visible in China, including KFCs everywhere, but it still felt like a 3rd-world version. Also, the Cultural Revolution was not all that long gone in ’98, and my sense was that people were still realing from it. Police were all over, and they had guns. And people seemed to be a bit wary of them.
On my trip in 2008, just before the Olympics, there must have been some heavy propaganda happening on Chinese media, ’cause lots and lots and lots of people I met all asked me what I thought about protestors in London and San Francisco. And before I could answer, they all said the same thing: “CNN is all lies.” I’d probably mostly agree, but probably for different reasons. There were also many inconvenient, seemingly random, restrictions imposed by the Chinese government (such as not allowing anything to be shipped with a battery installed). When asked why, most Chinese people I asked, answered with a straight face that it must be done because otherwise the Dali Lama would blow things up at airports.
By the time of the first Hacker Trip To China that I organized in 2009, things were very different. A gigantic, ugly statue of Mao was surrounded by a perimeter of stores selling everything imaginable. A huge department store had a mongo pile of a newly released American board game that they were pushing hard: Monopoly! There were still no hackerspaces in China, though. I still had the sense that officials were very official, and you didn’t want to cross them.
When I went there on my own last year, things were somehow way more open than it felt before. People I met were openly criticizing the government. There were two hackerspaces, XinCheJian in Shanghai, and FlamingoEDA in Beijing. Lots and lots of people, including those with positions in Chinese bureaucracy, were expressing the opinion that Chinese culture needs to change to encourage people to be creative and innovative — without this, they said, China would not have an economic future.
When I mentioned hackerspaces, people agreed with me that this was one means of implementing this change; and there was a lot of interest in me sharing my experiences in how to start a hackerspace. And there was also a lot of interest by people in organizing a Maker Faire for the same reason.
One year later, this year, there were not one, but two faires in China: a Mini Maker Faire in Shenzhen, and a big Maker Carnival in Beijing. And there are 7 hackerspaces in China, with talk of lots more. There may very well be 100 more soon, as the top 100 universities may be mandating that they each have one. And an elementary school in Shanghai is slated to have one soon. The hackerspaces in schools and universities are being called “Toyhouse” .
Everywhere I went, the Chinese media was interviewing me about how hackerspaces can change China in positive ways.
The Chinese government still openly censors the internet (though there are free online services that easily circumvent this). And the bureaucracy is still huge and centralized (though so big and out of control that many actually call it “anarchy”), and people in power can, seemingly on a whim, make decisions that adversly affect projects (such as the last-minute venue change for the Shenzhen Mini Maker Faire and the last minute date change at Maker Carnival — both because some bureaucrat said he needed the venue for a meeting — no apology — it’s just the way things are.
How will the changes in China play out? I don’t know. We will get to see.