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China’s ‘makers’ battle mistrust in the high-tech community

Chinese makers, who pride themselves on new creations and expect credit from their colleagues, are part of a slow evolution from a culture of counterfeiting to that of technological innovation

By Joanna Chiu  /  AFP, SHENZHEN, China

Children work in a “fabrication laboratory” — a small-scale workshop offering digital manufacturing — at a “maker space” in Shenzhen, China, on March 2.

Photo: AFP

Engineers, computer programmers and children tinker with self-made radio-controlled toy cars and robotic arms in China’s southern city of Shenzhen, home to “makers” who belie the country’s reputation as a hub for technology copycats.

The group works in a special space inside a high-rise in a city considered a nerve center for the “maker movement” of tech whizzes who invent, design and make their own gadgets and devices from scratch.

China is trying to shed its notoriety as a hub for counterfeit goods, a battleground in an ongoing trade dispute with the US, which is threatening to hit Chinese electronics and other high-end industry with steep tariffs for the “theft” of intellectual property.

Shenzhen’s government has doled out US$145 million in grants to lure thousands of Chinese and foreign entrepreneurs, and tens of millions more to fund “maker spaces” and activities to encourage innovation.

At MG Space, a wall is covered by shelves with meticulously labeled bins containing assorted pieces of wood and foam, circuit boards, wires, soldering kits, plastic parts and joiners for communal use.

“I’m designing a pulley system that can support a lot of weight,” 11-year-old Li Zhonghan said, without taking his eyes off a 3D modeling program on his computer.

Once their blueprints are ready, the makers send their plans to a 3D printer and laser cutter to make their designs a reality.

It is important to give children and youth opportunities to collaborate on projects with professionals, said Yue Lingyu (岳凌宇), vice manager of MG Space, which is privately funded.

“The tutors here don’t see the kids as their students — they view each other as colleagues,” she told reporters.

Makers pride themselves on coming up with new ideas and they expect fellow makers to give them due credit for inventions.

This is a departure from the so-called shanzhai (山寨, “mountain forts”) culture in China, where counterfeiters produce increasingly high-quality replicas of everything from computers and handbags to famous paintings.

Eight years ago, two brothers in Shenzhen invented the Apple Peel, a set of attachments that convert an iPod Touch into a fully functional iPhone that can make calls and send text messages.

China has slowly evolved from shanzhai to gray areas like Apple Peel and original technologies such as dockless shared bicycles.

Shenzhen went from being a manufacturing hub for mainly foreign firms to making mobile phones, drones and other gadgets for Chinese firms and start-ups.

However, a survey of US businesses by the American Chamber of Commerce said that intellectual property (IP) infringement continues to be a top challenge for some in China, citing inadequate laws and difficulty prosecuting cases.

Intellectual property issues have vexed Chinese companies, too. New intellectual property rights courts have been created to stop theft.

“In China, trends spring up and companies copy each other. Especially for cases where the ideas require a low level of technology, it’s hard to say who came up with it first,” said Wu Nan (巫楠), founder of AllTechAsia, which tracks Chinese technology trends.

There are too many obstacles to taking cases to court, said Matthew Murphy, managing partner at Beijing-based law firm MMLC Group, which specializes in intellectual property rights.

“The laws are fine, but many innovators look at how much trouble and cost may be involved in IP enforcement and they get concerned. The requirement of notarized/legalized powers of attorney and other documents adds a level of cost and slows things down a lot,” Murphy told reporters.

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