Kaiser: Welcome to The Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts.
We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor. I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you today from Chandler, Arizona.
Today on Sinica, I am delighted to welcome Silvia Lindtner, Associate Professor of Information at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. She’s also Associate Professor of Art and Design at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, and Assistant Professor of Digital Studies. If that weren’t enough, she’s also spent the last year teaching at NYU Shanghai, and she’s now in Dali, Yunnan, which is one of the loveliest places that I can think of in the world, though she’s been sort of dodging the old Shanghai horrors.
Silvia is the author of a highly original book called Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation, which some of you may recall was recommended on this program back in March. I think it was by Maria Repnikova. Maria’s recommendation prompted me, of course, to buy the book and to read it. And it’s really a fascinating look at, not only how China fits into sort of the overall global tech production landscape, but also about how certain approaches that we associate with technology production, shape, and maybe even define China’s style of governance, its statecraft.
Some of her previous work has focused on the fascinating city of Shenzhen, and on the emergence of the Maker Movement there centered in that preeminent Chinese hardware hub. Silvia Lindtner, welcome to Sinica, and thank you so much for taking the time.
Silvia: Thank you, Kaiser. It’s such a delight to be joining you today.
Kaiser: So, listeners, just a quick aside, it’s possible that some months from now you might see Silvia answer a few of these same questions on a certain American public television station. That is because Silvia was gracious enough to sit for an interview for the long-running science show, NOVA, on PBS, a show that I grew up watching and which is still beloved by many, many people in the United States and around the world. I have been working on a couple of films for that series, along with the director, David Borenstein, and a great team of China-based colleagues.
And it was those China-based colleagues that did the interview with Silvia because I was at a wedding in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was unable to Zoom in and ask the questions as I had originally planned to, but I am really glad that I get to do this now in a different medium. But happily, we are able to publish the full answers instead of just the little snippets that television requires us to keep it to.
What follows, and I think it’s true, what follows are basically the same questions I had originally written for that NOVA interview. Silvia, once again, thanks so much. We were really interested in talking to you for NOVA because you are somebody who has thought really deeply about the relationship between technology production and governance.
That is something that I think a lot of Americans believe they have a pretty good idea about. I mean, we find several different narratives about how governance, how government or regime type, or policy actually, either impedes or facilitates tech innovation. Now, there’s like this dominant kind of Silicon Valley rugged individualist libertarian ethic that seems to be alive and well in some parts of America, and really beyond. And that is, I think we all know, it’s kind of hostile to regulation.
It just wants the low corporate tax rate and as little interference as possible. It’s really laissez-faire. But my sense is that there’s also a growing interest in what the government can and should do, not only to protect consumers and to safeguard privacy, that’s maybe something we mostly agree on, but also to nurture national champions even or to fund R&D. We all know there’s this CHIPS Act and the Innovation and Competition Act in the U.S. House of Representatives right now for the CHIPS Act.
There are also those who wanna see government taking a role in forcing open other markets or in enforcing reciprocity against countries like China that block a lot of American products from being able to compete there. And, of course, there are a lot of people who’d like to see government just generally take on big tech and be more forceful about antitrust.
So, Silvia this audience for NOVA, and I mean, maybe even some listeners to this podcast are pretty familiar with these different narratives around tech innovation in China. But as I said, you are somebody who has just been on the ground in places like Shenzhen, you know it really well. We’ve gone somehow from this idea that China can’t innovate at all because it’s not democratic, to somehow China is out innovating us and is going to eat our lunch. Because also, because it’s non-democratic. At kind of 30,000-foot level, how do you make sense of this? What happened to flip this switch?
Silvia: Yeah. Thank you, Kaiser. I think that’s such an important question. And what is crucial, I think, for us to consider when we think through what has shifted in a public imagination about China, as you were saying, China was long thought of as, and even just eight years ago, China was often thought of as a place that either cannot innovate at all, or as a place that is copying the United States.
And what we’ve really witnessed over the last eight to 10 years is a drastic shift of how China is viewed, both in a sort of broader public imagination when it comes to technology, but also by policy-makers. I still remember very vividly in 2014, when I was traveling in Europe, I was approached by policy-makers there, German-speaking policy-makers who used to often ask me questions as someone teaching in the United States, “Oh, how can we replicate Silicon Valley in Europe? How can we build…” I’m originally from Austria, they would say, “How can we build the Silicon Valley of Vienna?”
In 2014, the question was suddenly, “How can we build the Shenzhen of Austria?”
Silvia: So, we might wonder what happened within a very short time span that this idea about, specifically Shenzhen, but also China broadly began shifting in the broader imagination. And what I argue in the book is really that we have to look back at what was happening in the years following the 2007 and ‘08 financial crisis. This was a moment when, especially in the United States, but also to a degree in Europe, people working in technology, in design, and engineering, began thinking, I would argue for the first time, more critically about digital technology.
When you think back about the 1990s, and even the 2000s, social media, digital technology, the internet was really thought of as a vehicle for social change, for positive change. Following the 2007 and ’08 financial crisis, for the first time, people began noticing how technology had become complicit in things like ruthless capitalist value accumulation, or more simply put, just making money for a small elite that is savvy with finance speculation. This was the first time where people in the tech industry itself began doubting these earlier promises that people had long sort of associated with technology.
And that sort of doubt over technological promise was really accelerating in the years of 2013, ‘14, ‘15, and ‘16 as more and more people were critically thinking about technology, labor, thinking about Amazon warehouses, or Uber. People really began thinking more critically about how technology was actually accelerating and enabling a form of labor exploitation that was unheard of before, because we had thought about technology as bringing about a creative class, the empowerment of people to live better lives and to work freely. Why would I want that, right?
It was in this very moment where people first, in the tech industry, but then also more broadly, the media began picking up on these more broader, sort of critiques of the tech industry, what we now often think of as the “tech-lash,” right? So, it was in this moment of the tech-lash of people doubting these early technological promises that China’s image in the global sort of story around technology began shifting.
People began turning to Shenzhen and specifically China as a place that hadn’t quite been co-opted by the tech industry and things like finance speculation quite the same way. Shenzhen, at that time, was really seen as a place that was sort of a counterculture on a mass scale where people were tinkering in manufacturing. They were resisting corporate monopolies like Apple. In fact, they were hacking these devices to make their own sort of copycat products.
And people in the tech industry were celebrating that. They were saying, “Look, this is a region that has still escaped this kind of reach of Silicon Valley, and how Silicon Valley has really become deeply intertwined with investment capital.” What is really interesting to look at is, of course, how China’s image has again shifted more recently. Now we more often hear stories about China as the surveillance state, China as a techno-authoritarian place that leaves no escape from a kind of data driven form of control.
And also, here we might ponder again, how is it possible that within a very short time span of just a couple of years, the image has again, so drastically shifted from a place that in 2014, ‘15 was suddenly celebrated as this kind of vehicle to recuperate the broken promises of Silicon Valley to suddenly being seen with so much suspicion? It’s really important for us to both study, of course, the realities on the ground of how technology policy has changed in China, but also really, to pay attention to how in somewhat even arbitrary ways, sometimes that image of China in a broader Western imagination is shifting and how that image is often too simplistic in terms of accounting for the actual reality on the ground.
Kaiser: Absolutely. That’s a fantastic explanation. I think that going all the way back to the financial crisis is important. I guess I would’ve dated it, without having read your book, I would’ve probably started to see the shift happen a little later than what you’ve identified. When I’ve written about this before, I’ve tended to look at two narratives that flipped. One, I could call it sort of the emancipatory narrative. This idea, as you said, that social media and the digital revolution was going to be a force for emancipation. And that also included political emancipation from authoritarian governments.
And we all thought, I mean, that was sort of the motto of the Arab Spring, right? I always had sort of thought that the reason for disillusionment with that one, well, it was a few pretty easily identified events. It was like the failure of so many of the Arab Spring and color revolutions, the Snowden revelations in 2013. Then, of course, Russian hacking and Russian election interference in European elections in 2015, and then in the U.S. election in 2016. And then, of course, things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
That one seemed explicable to me, but the other one that was less understandable was the one that you’ve just talked about more, which was that innovation narrative where China was sort of regarded as unable to innovate. And suddenly, as you say, these European governments are saying, “How do we create the Shenzhen of Austria in Vienna?” So, it’s fascinating. You’re absolutely right. Your book, Prototype Nation, argues that China itself is well, a prototype. You said that a nation can and probably should function as a prototype that China has, contrary to expectation, actually made itself into an alternative to existing models of modern technological progress, that it’s a prototype.
What would you identify as the key components that made this possible? I mean, it seems like it was pretty contingent to me. It was a confluence of a whole bunch of different factors, like the SEZ status that Shenzhen had, the major Taiwan ODM suddenly setting up shop there in Southern China, attracting all these component manufacturers and access to Hong Kong capital. Was it more deliberate or was it more contingent?
Silvia: Contingency is such an important word here because often people… We tend to forget how important historical processes are like Shenzhen’s status as a laboratory, as a special economic zone in the 1980s, for how we should think about Shenzhen today, so I’m really glad you’re bringing up this notion of contingency. But let me backup maybe for a second about this idea of the nation as a prototype. So, I approached this topic through the study of a very contemporary phenomenon at that time: the Maker Movement.
The Maker Movement was really something that spread around the globe in these years following the 2007 and ‘08 financial crisis, peaking around 2010 and ‘12 with big scale events, so-called Maker Fairs happening in major cities all over the world really. What these events were all about was that people, partially people who came out of technology, but also people who came out of more traditional industrial production kind of backgrounds, think chip manufacturing or even large-scale manufacturing itself, they began celebrating a form of technology production that was open source.
In other words, that a form of technology production was made available to anyone. One of the fundamental promises of the Maker Movement and the reason why it became such a global phenomenon was that the people who advocated for it argued that the testing and modeling of a technological alternative, so prototyping so to say, right? Prototyping is all about testing and modeling a new technological project, a technological alternative that is different from what we are doing right now.
It’s a very common process in any sort of engineering project, right? So, these people argue that this process of prototyping should no longer be reserved for scientists or for engineers, for elites, right? It should be available to everyone. And people who were active in that movement began turning to China, and specifically Shenzhen, as the ultimate laboratory for prototyping and for delivering on this promise that prototyping should be democratized, that it should be made available to everyone. This idea that Shenzhen itself constituted, and with it, China, constituted a unique laboratory. To not only prototyping your garage or in like a tiny hacker space, but to actually prototype at the level of industrial production at the city, at the level of the city, that began drawing a lot of attention first by investors.
People began setting up incubator spaces in Shenzhen that focused specifically on that promise, but it also eventually drew in politicians. The most crucial year for that… You mentioned a couple of years earlier, the Snowden revelations in 2013, Russian hacking in 2015, Cambridge Analytica in 2016, ‘17, right? These were kind of from an American perspective. What happened with regards to how technology was perceived by a broader public?
What happened in those same years, around the same time in 2015, was that the Prime Minister of China at the time, Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强, visited a tiny Makerspace in Shenzhen. He also visited Huawei, of course, and a big investment firm, but he went to that small Hackerspace and declared that this form of prototyping that people in that tiny space did should become a model for the nation, should become a prototype, so to say, for the nation as a whole. And he declared that that particular promise of democratized prototyping would enable Chinese citizens, and specifically young Chinese people, to transform themselves from an earlier version of engineering into someone who was an entrepreneurial change maker.
So, someone who would start their own businesses, who wouldn’t passively execute someone else’s vision, but who would take matters into their own hands and design and implement their own prototypes, and in doing so, also change the nation and the image of the nation. This idea that by prototyping yourself into an entrepreneurial change maker, you can also prototype the nation anew and create a new form of what the nation means, a new model that could be exported.
For instance, how China’s been perceived in Africa or in other regions along its Belt and Road Initiative was really crystallized in that year of 2015. This was the moment where tech entrepreneurship, through this sort of promising story of making, became enshrined in a series of technology policies focused on innovation entrepreneurship at that time. And these policies are still with us today. They’re still with us today. They’re in dialogue with current policies on shuzihua (数字化 shùzìhuà), this digitization of China, or the data driven kind of governance approach that we see now.
But it was really in 2015 that the government appropriated this idea that prototyping should be, or could be something that happens on a society level, that by transforming citizens into technological entrepreneurs, we can transform society as a whole.
Kaiser: Now, to what extent was this call by Li Keqiang taken up by other prominent government figures? To what extent was it? You said there were policies that made their way into law, but was this suddenly on the front pages of Renmin Zhibao? Was this suddenly something that had an impact on the way that local governments directed investment, the way that universities ran their engineering departments? How did that change manifest in other sectors?
Silvia: Yeah, exactly. What happened in the two years that followed, so 2016 and ‘17, is that you saw a lot of regional governments. So, think city-level governments, or even, of course, provincial level governments, but even district level governments began allocating existing resources. And this is a very common phenomenon of course, as you know, Kaiser, in China, where Beijing sets a new policy, and then local regional governments compete over who implements it best.
Silvia: Because that enables politicians to advance their careers. Let’s say Shenzhen becomes known as the city government that implemented China’s innovation policy best. It’s a career trajectory for the mayor or for the province-level government officials to advance. So, this also happened in this case that governments began implementing this policy using their existing resources, so Beijing didn’t even have to allocate funding for this.
People were using their existing resources to set up so-called mass Makerspaces, or chuang ke kongjian (创客空间 chuàng kè kōngjiān) in Chinese, which could be translated into either a creative space or an incubator space or a Makerspace. They began setting them up in shopping malls, in libraries, in high schools. I visited many of these spaces all over the country. And supposedly, there were like many thousands of such spaces in existence at one point two years later.
And it was really appropriated in that sense as a way to get people to think differently about education. This was a moment where people really began thinking about the role technology, and specifically technology production, could play in educating Chinese citizens. Thinking of what would a future generation of people look like. Rather than being really good at just math or engineering, they would start their own companies, right? They would take matters into their own hands, so to say. So, the Maker Movement really promoted this kind of notion that people would become doers, and makers, and dreamers, and they would sort of self-actualize through these kinds of technological visions.
What we saw rolled out in the years of 2015 and ’16 in many ways was really a kind of test, a kind of laboratory for some of these later policy changes that really came out around 2017, ‘18 first around the digitization of China itself. The 2015 policies around the mass Maker Movement and mass innovation, I really think of it as, and this is very typical for the Chinese government, as testing out what would it mean to get people to tinker with technology. And in doing so, also change society, change education, change social processes.
So, these earlier policies in 2015 and ‘16 were a precursor for what we are seeing now around the data driven governance policies that started popping up around 2017 and ‘18. The Chinese word for this is often shuzihua (数字化 shùzìhuà), so digitization. So, the digitization of city life, smart city life. I think a better term in English is actually data-driven governance because the actual technologies envisioned to transform both how cities are managed and how life is managed in China is through data analytics and through data gathering. But these recent policies are really an extension, so to say, from these earlier policy experiments, so to say, in 2015 and ’16.
Kaiser: Before we take this to the idea of politics or of governance, this idea that prototyping can be done at that level, I wonder if I were, say, sitting on the ground in another city maybe in the year after Li Keqiang’s speech, I might point to Shenzhen and say, “Well, it’s all well and good for Shenzhen. I mean, it already has so many natural advantages. Already, there are so many industrial design firms. There are so many components readily available to absolutely anyone for any kind of hardware you might undertake to make. Not all cities have this. Shenzhen already sits on top of the entire electronics supply chain and value chain really, in China. Of course, you can be a prototype, or you can be a maker in Shenzhen. That doesn’t apply to every other city.” Wouldn’t there be some pushback to this?
Silvia: Yeah. And I think, in many ways, that’s exactly right. I think actually often the question that people ask, “Oh, how can we just replicate Shenzhen or replicate Silicon Valley,” is exactly a problematic or the wrong question, exactly for what you just argued, Kaiser — that you can’t do the same kind of technological experimentation everywhere. There is a very specific reason why Shenzhen came to be seen as that unique kind of laboratory at scale and why it was articulated as such and celebrated as such.
For that, we have to look at, and we talked about it briefly just earlier, it’s the history of Shenzhen in the 1980s, how it became declared a special economic zone by Deng Xiaoping, the first kind of laboratory in China to see what it would look like to move beyond socialist market processes and incorporate things like privatization, entrepreneurship, foreign direct investment.
What would that look like in China? And the kind of social change that was necessary to implement actually that post-socialist to market economy. Shenzhen, in many ways, even though it wasn’t on the radar, on people’s radar for quite some time, in terms of it being thought of as high tech or technology innovation, what it looks like today really is contingent on this history, right? On it being declared sort of, not just an economic laboratory, but also a social laboratory in many ways.
Kaiser: Yeah. And if I were feeling especially uncharitable, I might actually point out primarily, hey, isn’t this a little bit like encouraging everybody to smelt iron in their backyard. I mean, not everybody is going to produce quality iron, right?
Silvia: Yeah. No, exactly. Exactly. Because Shenzhen as a special economic zone didn’t just mean experimentation with economic processes and sort of allowing people to be entrepreneurial. It also demanded or rested on various forms of labor exploitation. And actually, a lot of foreign companies, of course, moved there because the labor laws were much more lax in Shenzhen, right? This is why foreign companies think of the early tech companies, HP, why they outsourced some of the manufacturing there was exactly because they could exploit some of these loopholes.
Even though Shenzhen was celebrated as suddenly this technological hacker paradise in 2012, ‘13, ‘14, people often forgot that that paradise, that Shenzhen was really thought of as sort of a next frontier, rested on the labor of generations of migrant workers. People also didn’t really think of the consequences of what it would mean to celebrate China as another frontier of technological innovation, like that language of frontier-making doesn’t just have a colonial ring to it, that sort of promise of the next frontier. As I argue in the book, that also allowed and sort of legitimized various forms of contemporary labor exploitation, especially labor exploitation in actually the creative industry itself, rather than just the factories.
Kaiser: To move this now into the level of government, I think that something that’s always fascinated me is that, and it’s not really talked about enough I think, is just the extent to which China to a great degree remains — and it’s past its peak, but it has been since the late 1980s — a deeply technocratic polity, right? If you were to look, in say, anytime from the mid-’90 on until really around the rise of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, the Politburo Standing Committee was utterly dominated by technocrats.
The Central Committee was dominated by technocrats. The mayors or party secretaries in the provinces or governors, all just so heavily technocratic. I always think that the technocratic flavor has them reaching immediately toward technocratic analogies that they find further down like this, that I can see why it would appeal to them. I remember I was working at Baidu, and I often worked with the CEO, Robin Li (Lǐ Yànhóng 李彦宏), who was himself trained as an engineer, on speeches. And in one that he gave, it had no input whatsoever for me. I was just in the audience listening to him, but I always took careful notes about what he said.
He talked about something that he really admires in the way that the Communist Party gets things done. He says that it’s a principle that the Party has in common with software developers. In fact, today I was at Intel and doing a bunch of interviews with very senior people at Intel in Phoenix, Arizona, in Chandler, Arizona. And what was really interesting was they said the same thing. They talked about how they like to take a problem and break it down into the smallest bite-size chunks that can be accomplished by individuals or by small teams, and then sort of reassemble it.
You can take the most intractable seeming problem, and if you break it down into small enough pieces, subroutines, or whatever that you need, you can get it all done. And I heard this twice from two separate people today in interviews that I was doing. That idea that government departments should operate like engineering departments, goes back to really the 1980s. I mean, Chen Xueshun was saying stuff like that. Your book argues that there’s a kind of maker or startup, or entrepreneurial mindset that’s now very much a part of the Party’s ethos. Can you unpack that a bit and give some examples of that? And connect it to, if you think that it does connect, to the technocratic nature of the Chinese Communist Party since reform and opening.
Silvia: Yes, it definitely connects, but I also think there’s some interesting changes that are happening to how governance, specifically with technology, has been unfolding since Xi Jinping. I think, right?
Kaiser: Oh, for sure.
Silvia: I’ve worked as an intern for Intel for many years when I was a PhD student. So, what you just mentioned, in terms of engineers thinking about prototyping on even a subroutine level and how that even then makes a company and corporation work like Intel, is very familiar to me. In fact, one of the most interesting things for me doing my research in Shenzhen for several years was talking to Intel engineers on the ground who worked very closely actually with people in industrial design, people often associated with copycat production, or shanzhai (山寨 shānzhài) in Chinese, which was, of course, not what the official rhetoric at Intel was at all.
Intel was trying to present itself as completely removed from that partially illicit experimentation with technology, but a lot of the people I met at Intel at that time, they thought of themselves also as hackers, as people committed to this kind of project. And there were a lot of collaborations with people in Shenzhen at the time, so just sort of as a footnote. But yes, I think what I argue for in terms of this appropriation of a kind of endorsement of citizens, or even demand of citizens to lead an entrepreneurial life is an extension of a technocratic policy, a technocratic engineering solution-oriented mindset. This belief that you just outlined, also amongst the Intel engineers you mentioned, that by designing technology, we can change society.
If we solve technological problems, we solve societal problems. Now, what is very interesting about some of the recent changes in China’s technology-driven governance processes is that this technocratic mindset is accompanied by an ideology that we often sort of associate, I think, with a Western neoliberal kind of model. Let me just explain it a little bit, because neoliberal always sounds a little bit jargony. We often think of the United States, for instance, through a meritocratic value system, right? That people are called upon to work hard, realize their dreams. And by doing so, they cannot only lead better lives, but they also build America and build sort of an American society that’s fundamentally heroic and sort of optimistic.
We often think of this as operating through people’s self-initiative. So, the state kind of takes a step back, and it’s people who make that American dream or who make that techno-optimistic future of America happen. We often don’t think of China that way at all, right? China has a very strong state. It’s very often associated with various forms of authoritarian leadership. And we think of this state really, as very tightly controlling both societal but also technological developments.
Now, what is very interesting about these recent shifts in Chinese governance is that technology is very strategically used to govern different segments of the population in different ways. While some people might be very tightly controlled and surveilled, like people who are labeled terrorists or who are labeled as low-quality citizens, think of migrant workers or certain minorities. I mean Yunnan right now, and so I think a lot about how minorities here are governed quite differently than a tech elite, for instance, in Shanghai and Beijing.
This kind of entrepreneurial mindset has been used in governance processes, I think, in China, to really also experiment with how different segments of the population are governed differently, and to call upon certain citizens to be these kinds of entrepreneurial change makers that the nation would be very proud of, that they would write about in their news media, that they would present when it comes to Belt and Road Initiative type projects. People who they could “export” as these sort of promising citizens who implement the Chinese dream, who are called upon to innovate, and who are called upon to do their own thing, so to say, as long as that thing that they do is not reaching into political experimentation, but remain focused on economic and technological experimentation.
But in comparison to someone like a person in Xinjiang or a minority in Yunnan, these people thought of as entrepreneurial change makers are given a fair amount of freedom, and they don’t get state support. So, many of the people I’ve interviewed over the last 10 years and I’ve worked very closely with who are entrepreneurs and startups and sort of the technological elite, they complain to me a lot in terms of not getting state support, right? They’re like, “We don’t see the state in that sense. We are really asked to be these kinds of self-actualizing change makers that you also see in America. That’s what the government wants us to be.”
Kaiser: You’ve verged toward this, and I think it’s a really, really interesting point where there’s maybe an expectation for people who aren’t familiar with China. I mean, this idea that China does labor under this oppressive authoritarian regime, and somehow that should extinguish the joy or the optimism that they feel toward technology. But I think anyone who’s even glancingly familiar with the tech and entrepreneurship landscape in China knows that it’s quite different.
There’s a very different attitude about technology. You’ve talked about this in your book about how the Chinese leadership ought to really deliberately instill, I mean, in your words, “optimism, positivity, and happiness” through technology. Honestly, my sense, from years working in China in tech companies like Youku and Badu was that there was a kind of feedback loop with that too: that the kind of buoyancy and optimism that came of seeing technology and the quality of life both together sort of advancing in lockstep, actually fueled enthusiasm for participating in technological creation.
It gave it greater cultural cache. Of course, it gave it material rewards too. If not to get actually rich, then at least to make a good living as a coder, right? It was something that parents came to embrace. Children started to aspire to, to be those, as you say, self-actualized change makers. I feel like, in any society, the attitude that you have toward technology matters a lot. Somehow in the West, and you’ve laid out the very, very clear path from the disillusionment of the 2007, 2008 financial crisis on down. We are not in that place anymore in the West.
A lot of it, I mean, outside of small pockets in Silicon Valley and whatnot. There isn’t that kind of techno-optimism widespread in our culture today. Whereas, in China, I feel like it’s still very much there in spite of the revolt against 996, in spite of the lying flat movement as it were. It still seems to be society infused with techno-optimism. Do you think that that’s true, first of all, and do you think that matters?
Silvia: I think that really matters. And I’m so glad that you’re bringing up how important it is to understand how attitudes and feelings towards technology really are significant for us to understand how technology is then changing education and even governance structures. We often tend to look at things like GDP growth, economic development, or the number of patents, or the number of products that come out of the region to assess, is it economically successful? Is it innovative?
But I think what is really important, and what we often overlook are these feelings and these attitudes about technology that really shape how a society, and even down to parental decision making that you just mentioned, right? How that shapes how technologies are then legitimized as enablers of various forms of societal change, and not always in good ways. Not always in good ways, of course, right?
Silvia: What I really try to convey in the book as well is that there’s various forms of technological control in China that don’t necessarily always take the shape and form of top-down authoritarian control, but a form of control that actually operates through these positive attitudes and feelings associated to technology. Let me just briefly unpack it because it might seem counterintuitive. We might think, “Oh, but isn’t technology, if we get people to innovate and people are happy about that, isn’t that just a good thing?”
Let me just unpack a little bit why I talk about this sort of creating a good feeling about technology inherently can also be a form of control. There’s this Chinese term that, Kaiser, you’re very familiar with I’m sure, zhengnengliang (正能量 zhèngnéngliàng), which translates into English as just…
Kaiser: Positive energy, yeah.
Silvia: Something like a positive feeling or positive energy, right? The government, it’s actually a citizen-driven term, right? This was an internet term that was very widely used to describe and encourage positive online commentary amongst citizens to encourage each other, to support each other.
And the government, which is what happens so often and what happened also with the Maker Movement, appropriated this term to basically ask of people, especially in moments of crisis, and this is particularly pronounced right now during the recent lockdowns again in China. It was very vivid for me during the Shanghai lockdown. Asking citizens to display and enact a positive attitude on behalf of the state, on behalf of the nation, rather than complaining, rather than pointing to what doesn’t work well. This demand to be happy, to be positive in a moment of crisis and anxiety is a form of suppression in that sense, that no other feelings are allowed, no other forms of critique are allowed. The only feeling that is “allowed” is one that is positive, not just about what the government might be doing in this moment of a lockdown, but about the nation as a whole.
In the book, I sort of trace how technology itself became enrolled in this project of associating the nation with these positive feelings, right? And technology again historically being associated with such positive values, also in the West, even though as you just mentioned, this is hardly a possibility now in the West, like people are very critical of Silicon Valley these days. And yet, even in the West, a lot of people hold on to technological promise, right? AI, artificial intelligence, despite all the criticism of surveillance, is still seen as something that will accelerate economic development and will bring about a form of positive control, in that sense that we can manage our own lives better.
In the book, I trace basically how these attachments of positive feelings that still exist with us in the West today as well, are circulating between China and the United States and are very strategically used by powerful elites — no matter if they’re sitting in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, investors, or government officials — to get people to think in positive ways about their own decision-making processes.
Kaiser: Let’s talk a little bit about that. I mean, coming back to Shenzhen, you’ve talked about Shenzhen and its rise as having been co-produced. You talk about that in terms, not only of Western capital, but also of sort of Westerner’s participation. How important was that? How necessary was that to Shenzhen’s development? I mean, obviously it played a part with so many people doing their manufacturing there and so forth, with so many Shenzhen ODMs and whatnot.
Silvia: Yeah. What was so fascinating about this sudden image of Shenzhen as a newly innovative space that had somehow made itself into a hacker paradise by being different from Silicon Valley, or even separate from Silicon Valley, what was so fascinating about that story was that people sort of pretended as if Shenzhen had not been, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, produced as an economic hub because of the West’s investment, right?
Silvia: This core production of Shenzhen and its rise as a tech innovation hub, of course, then goes back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, right? That already Shenzhen in the ‘90s was fundamentally a transnational project, an international project that rested on foreign direct investment, not only from the United States and Europe, but also, of course, Hong Kong and Taiwan. And you mentioned these contract manufacturers that were really crucial to build Shenzhen. This core production is really important for us to understand, because we often think of innovation as something that is, let’s say, American innovation is… There’s often this notion that American innovation is different from, let’s say, Chinese innovation.
And people would ask, “So, what is unique about the Chinese version of it?” And what this question often precludes us from seeing is that, no matter if it’s American innovation or Chinese innovation, it rests on people circulating through these networks of technology production. It rests on people circulating through various educational initiatives. And by educational initiatives, I mean things like even pitch contests or startup networks that really cut across regions. In the book, I argue that we really cannot understand China’s rise as a high-tech sort of hacker paradise, and the articulation thereof, without also understanding how American tech production and Silicon Valley was shifting at the same time, because they’re so deeply intertwined. Even though we tend to think of these regions, and especially think of technology innovation often as so deeply separate.
I think this comes back to how we think about innovation. We often think about innovation that’s attached like a single author, a creator. Often when we think about sort of the heroic hacker or tech entrepreneur, what comes to mind as of these charismatic figures.
Kaiser: Sure, of course, figures.
Silvia: Let’s say, Steve jobs is, of course, a classical example. We think of that sort of innovation attached to this charismatic, well, sometimes even problematic kind of male figure. And we don’t really think how that even the most-
Kaiser: Yeah, Elon Musk.
Silvia: Elon Musk, yeah. Mark Zuckerberg. We often tend to look much less at the kind of processes in terms of labor or networking that are necessary, not just within a place, but also across regions that makes that sort of creation possible.
Kaiser: In this conception of Shenzhen as a kind of notional hacker’s paradise, I find, I used to read a lot… There was kind of a fetishization of this shanzhai culture. This idea that it all grew sort of directly out of shanzhai, that shanzhai was sort of the progenitor to this all. That never struck me as entirely convincing, but shanzhai clearly had some role to play. I’m wondering if you can help us to understand how much of a role and how people, either understate or overstate that role.
Silvia: Yeah. The fetishization of shanzhai is something that was really important for me to unpack. And let me maybe use a slightly different term here, Kaiser. Also since you just had another episode with Andrew Liu about Orientalism, maybe I can go there a little bit for our listeners to unpack how does fascination with shanzhai, which is this Chinese term for copycat production but also for a kind of technology counterculture in Chinese manufacturing, how that fascination actually rested on an image of China that presented China as other, as still somehow lagging behind the West?
Just to back up a little bit, so, shanzhai, as I just mentioned, was often sort of just a Chinese term for copycat production. And people would even, like also in China, would talk about it in very negative terms. It was something to be embarrassed about. Copycat production in China was often seen by both the government and by Chinese citizens as an example for why China was still not as modern as the West. And then what happened in 2012, ‘13, ‘14, or a little bit earlier than that, is that especially a lot of people active in this kind of hacker maker tech scene in Europe, the United States, but also in other regions, they suddenly began celebrating shanzhai and Chinese copycat production in manufacturing as a counterculture at scale, and as crucial actually for Chinese tech innovation.
What was fascinating to see though at that time, that as people were celebrating shanzhai or copycat production, they would argue what was so unique about shanzhai was that it was messy, that it wouldn’t be good at these kinds of design type innovations that you saw coming out of, let’s say, a city like Berlin or Silicon Valley itself. That it was a more bare bones form of innovation that was attached to tacit knowledge, to close-knit networks, a kind of tech innovation. That they would have an easy time entering exactly because it was messier, not quite as developed yet, still somewhat lagging behind.
And this sort of notion of shanzhai, on the one hand being fascinating and being a sort of counterculture at scale, while at the same time also being less modern and less developed is really… There’s a seeming contradiction there, right? How can it be, on the one hand, newly innovative and modern, and yet still framed as somehow not as good and lagging behind the West? I was really interested in what fetishization, as you called it Kaiser, of shanzhai actually did? What I saw it doing is that it really framed China through these sort of Orientalist terms, or very similar to how China and other regions have historically often been framed by the West as somehow not as developed, as somehow in need of Western interventions.
A lot of the hackers and maker artists, designer type people who came to Shenzhen, they framed shanzhai as a place that allowed them to intervene in China. And also, they positioned themselves as uniquely capable to level up shanzhai, to level up shanzhai into something that was a true startup culture or a true maker culture.
Kaiser: I think you’ve characterized that perfectly. I mean, that’s present definitely in Bunnie Huang, maybe, for sure for people who wrote about it back then. I think part of it though, is in the term itself. shanzhai has a kind of… Because what is shanzhai? It’s like a mountain bandit lair, right?
Kaiser: It has a romance to it, right?
Kaiser: It has a certain kind of countercultural or anti-authoritarian, living outside the confines of polite society. It is transgressive in a way it’s kind of sexy. And I understand the fetishization of it. I don’t condemn people for it.
Silvia: Yes. No, I do understand the fascination with it completely. It’s what draws us into technology. It’s often one of the reasons why I, myself, have a background in computer science and design. As a young person, I was really drawn to digital technology because I do associate with it a kind of anti-authoritarian commitment, a transgressive kind of potential. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially being here in Yunnan right now. I’ve been rereading the anthropologist, James C. Scott’s work on Zomia, in The Art of Not Being Governed. Yunnan is one of the regions for Scott’s analysis of Zomia.
So, a region of hill people, as he called it, who escaped the reach of the state. The question is, to which degree there is still escape possible, no matter in which region we are in? United States, or China, or elsewhere, it’s become much harder. I think the fascination with shanzhai was for sure that people were really committed to enabling change through technology. You mentioned Bunnie Huang, who is a good friend. And Bunnie Huang, David Lee, Eric Khan.
Kaiser: David Lee.
Silvia: Monica Shen, Vicky Xie, Naomi Wu. A lot of people I met in Shenzhen were excited about shanzhai because it pushed back against there’s just one version of technology, and that’s maybe what Silicon Valley tells us to do. There’s other ways of thinking about technology and there’s other ways of implementing it. And that’s truly exciting. That’s also why so many people with a feminist commitment were really interested in the Maker Movement, right?
Silvia: And it’s one of the reasons why I was fascinated with it myself. I think it’s really important for us to not condemn these hopes and commitments to change, but to actually take them seriously, and then maybe say, “Well, technological change might not be the only way to go about political change.” It often requires, or it always requires so much more than just a technological fix. But I think the notion of giving people actually hope and optimism is a really important one, especially in moments where there’s a feeling that there is no longer any escape in so many parts of the world.
Kaiser: Silvia Lindtner, what a fun and insight packed conversation. I cannot recommend your book more highly. Please get out there, get it. There will be some people who will find it to be a little academic, but I assure you, read on. It rewards. It very much rewards it. The ideas are big and profound. So, please, give it a read. Again, it’s called Prototype Nation. Silvia, stick around. I wanna get to recommendations, and I hope you’ve got a good one for us. And I’m gonna insist that you give us at least one recommendation of an off the beaten path travel place somewhere in Yunnan, so when China finally opens back up and we can all finally get there, we’ll know where to go.
Meanwhile, let me just remind everybody that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you like the work that we do with this and other shows in the Sinica Network, please show your support by subscribing to our China Access Newsletter. While you’re at it, sign up for our business focus, ChinaEdge Newsletter, it’s free. It comes in the morning, U.S. time anyway. And check out ChinaEdge Live, which is our YouTube show with the formidable Lizzi Lee. You can just search up ChinaEDGE Live on YouTube. You will absolutely dig it. She’s just a powerhouse, such a great host for that show. It is coming soon to your favorite podcast app. All right, Silvia, onto recommendations. What do you have for us?
Silvia: I have two recommendations, which I’m really excited to share with you and your listeners, and they actually go together.
Kaiser: Oh, great.
Silvia: One is a science fiction piece by a good friend of mine, a science fiction writer, Chén Qiūfān 陈楸帆. He is most well-known, I think, to most Western audience members probably through his book, Waste Tide.
Silvia: But what I wanna recommend is a short story that he released in 2019. In English, it’s called In This Moment, We Are Happy. And in Chinese, it’s zhe yike women shi kuaile de (这一刻我们是快乐的 zhè yīkè wǒmen shì kuàilè de). So, similar sort of meaning as the English, In This Moment, We Are Happy. And it’s a wonderful… If people Google it, search for it online, you can, of course, find the Chinese version for the Chinese speaking and reading audience.
But there’s a really lovely English translation that also has an audio version to it on Clarkesworld. It’s a science fiction and fantasy magazine.
Kaiser: Oh great. Yeah.
Silvia: And the audio version is delightful. So, I highly recommend it. And what is very unique about this short story is that it’s about surrogacy and robots.
Silvia: And it goes really well with one of my favorite scholarly books on the same topic called Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures by Kalindi Vora and Neda Atanasoski. Their book, by Neda and Kalindi came out the same year as Chen Qiufan’s piece in 2019 by Duke University Press. And they talk about through a series of stories about surrogate workers who labor on behalf of humans and tackle these complex issues of labor, the patriarchy, racial capitalism, all the way from sex robots to military drones.
So, both Chen Qiufan’s piece and Kalindi Vora and Neda Atanasoski’s piece, I think is such a timely topic, what it means to be human. Especially in this sort of data-driven world that treats certain bodies as less valuable, and aims to once again — I was thinking about the American context of the Supreme Court recently — aims to once again control women and people with uteruses in ways that are different from others. Both the book and the short story are really a delight to read in and of themselves, but also together, I think really wonderful and complimentary.
Kaiser: So, Chen Qiufan, who also goes by Stanley Chan, he was my colleague at Baidu for a few years. We saw each other a lot. We’re friends.
Oh, that’s right! Yeah.
Kaiser: Yeah. He was actually one of the very first guests on Sinica, and that was all the way back in the year 2010, so it was almost 13 years ago that we had him.
Silvia: That’s amazing.
Kaiser: Yeah, he’s great. His work is just intense and it’s great. So, that’s a fantastic recommendation. And what a coincidence that it came out the very same year as the other book that you recommended. Fantastic recommendations, but I am gonna hold you to give me a good off the beaten path place that you’ve traveled to, you and Dan have traveled to in Yunnan in these last three months.
Silvia: Yes. So happy to do that. I think most people would probably recommend a place in the north of Yunnan close to the Tibetan borders, which is absolutely gorgeous. And I’ve really enjoyed hiking there around Diqing. But I think what I’m gonna recommend is the south of Yunnan where I first… This is where we first landed, the city called Jinghong, which is very close to the Myanmar border. It’s a really fascinating city because it’s not as touristy, it’s fairly small scale, and it has some of the best food in Yunnan, the best Thai, shaokao (烧烤 shāokǎo), sort of grilled barbecue type food.
And it’s in contrast to many other cities like Shangri-La or Lijiang. It’s really not touristy. So, if you just wanna see life and the daily struggles of what it means to live in the Southwest of China right now, close to a border, I think Jinghong is such a fascinating place to be. And if you wanna be in a remote forest there, I stayed in this fantastic place called Yourantai, which was started by a Swiss guy, a biologist and his Taiwanese wife. Basically, they built their own forest in the middle oil palm plantations. So, it’s a really fascinating project, just off the city in Jinghong. If you wanna be in nature, I highly recommend that.
Kaiser: What a great recommendation. I’m so glad I asked you for that. Thank you. My recommendation touches on a hobby that I’ve taken up just in, I guess, the last five years or so. I do Asian archery. So, I have a number of bows. My favorite bow in my possession right now comes from a Ukrainian company that’s based in Kiev. It’s called Sarmat Archery, S-A-R-M-A-T, sarmatarchery.com. And not only do they make fantastic bows of all sorts of different central Asian types, my favorite is the Dzungar bow. They also make great arrows, bamboo or wooden arrows with all… They’ll custom make them to the draw length and to the poundage of your bow. Really great stuff. But you also help a Ukrainian company that desperately needs help right now.
They are still in business. They are still making, they’ve got fewer bows than typically available, but they’re still shipping a lot of arrows. And so, I just bought myself a dozen and eyeing other new bows to try out. That’s something I really enjoy. And you can help out a struggling Ukrainian company while you’re at it. Sarmat Archery.
Silvia, what a pleasure, what a real pleasure to talk to you finally. I’m so glad that we have you on the film, which I just saw some edits of early on, and you’re great. You’re absolutely great in it.
Silvia: Thank you, Kaiser. It was such a pleasure to be on the show today. And the film crew was amazing. Let me give them a shout out as well, because it was such a fantastic day to talk to them and be interviewed by them, and same. It was a real delight, and yeah, can’t wait to see the footage, of course.
Kaiser: Yeah, it should be out in the spring. The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at [email protected], or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.