Red China's Rebels Against Brand-Name Capitalism


Bunnie Huang has an interesting post about the shanzhai of China, a sprawling network of tiny operations run by hacker-entrepreneurs. They're notorious in the West for making name-brand knockoffs, but Huang argues that their copying serves as a base from which much genuine innovation takes place:

An estimate I heard places 300 shanzhai organizations operating in Shenzhen. These shanzai consist of shops ranging from just a couple folks to a few hundred employees; some just specialize in things like tooling, PCB design, PCB assembly, cell phone skinning, while others are a little bit broader in capability. The shanzai are efficient: one shop of under 250 employees churns out over 200,000 mobile phones per month with a high mix of products (runs as short as a few hundred units is possible); collectively an estimate I heard places shanzhai in the Shenzhen area producing around 20 million phones per month. That's an economy approaching a billion dollars a month. Most of these phones sell into third-world and emerging markets: India, Africa, Russia, and southeast Asia; I imagine if this model were extended to the PC space the shanzhai would easily accomplish what the OLPC failed to do. Significantly, the shanzai are almost universally bootstrapped on minimal capital with almost no additional financing — I heard that typical startup costs are under a few hundred thousand for an operation that may eventually scale to over 50 million revenue per year within a couple years.

Significantly, they do not just produce copycat phones. They make original design phones as well….These original phones integrate wacky features like 7.1 stereo sound, dual SIM cards, a functional cigarette holder, a high-zoom lens, or a built-in UV LED for counterfeit money detection. Their ability to not just copy, but to innovate and riff off of designs is very significant. They are doing to hardware what the web did for rip/mix/burn or mashup compilations. The Ferrari toy car meets mobile phone, or the watch mixed with a phone (complete with camera!) are good examples of mashup: they are not a copies of any single idea but they mix IP from multiple sources to create a new heterogeneous composition, such that the original source material is still distinctly recognizable in the final product. Also, like many web mashups, the final result might seem nonsensical to a mass-market (like the Ferrari phone) but extremely relevant to a select long-tail market. Interestingly, the shanzhai employ a concept called the "open BOM"—they share their bill of materials and other design materials with each other, and they share any improvements made; these rules are policed by community word-of-mouth, to the extent that if someone is found cheating they are ostracized by the shanzhai ecosystem.

To give a flavor of how this is viewed in China, I heard a local comment about how great it was that the shanzhai could not only make an iPhone clone, they could improve it by giving the clone a user-replaceable battery.

If you'd like to see something like that take off in the United States, be forewarned: In addition to the risk of intellectual property suits, America's shanzhai might get in trouble with the local zoning authorities.

My personal favorite shanzhai story is of the chap who owns a house that I'm extraordinarily envious of. His house has three floors: on the top, is his bedroom; on the middle floor is a complete SMT manufacturing line; on the bottom floor is a retail outlet, selling the products produced a floor above and designed two floors above.

[Via Kevin Carson.]