Back in spring, Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, an MIT engineer with a penchant for open-source hardware, published a blog post about a USD 12 phone spotted at one of the many massive electronics shopping malls in Shenzhen, the southern megalopolis at the heart of China’s manufacturing might. The phone was extremely simple: it used a wire for a Bluetooth antenna and no screws at all.
This design was only possible, according to Bunnie, as a product of a budding open-source ecosystem he called gongkai. If you’re picturing hackers tweaking 3D printers, you’re wrong. The Chinese flavor is unique and somewhat elusive. Literally meaning “public”, gongkai describes a phenomenon in constant evolution. The un-movement doesn’t have thought leaders, regulations, or a fancy logo: it just exists, as one of the many realities of a fragmented but enormous manufacturing economy transitioning through adolescence.
Its progenitor was the shanzhai phenomenon of cheap imitations, with limited but wildly off-brand elements of novelty (think fake iPhones with cigarette lighters). Both a testament to Chinese enthusiasm and optimism, shanzhai transcended its origins, somewhat re-appropriated by the same manufacturers the term was coined to derogate. According to Bunnie, gongkai blurs the space between shanzhai and proper open source. “Gongkai isn’t a totally lawless free-for-all,” he wrote. “It’s a network of ideas, spread peer-to-peer, with certain rules to enforce sharing and to prevent leeching.”
For one, not just anyone can enter the gongkai community. But if you can access one of its niche sites, read Mandarin, and prove yourself worthy, you might find collaborators iterating on the lowest-possible-cost components for devices like the one Bunnie found.
After he posted pictures of the gutted phone, a minor storm-in-a-teacup ensued: in over 130 comments, readers pointed to cheaper versions and discussed the feasibility of open-source in China. But the point wasn’t to find the cheapest phone. “I’m telling a story about an ecosystem,” Bunnie told me.
“Western IP concept has a ‘broadcast’ notion to it,” he said, “where a single genius can ‘own’ an idea and claim a monopoly position through copyright or patent.” In China, the system is decentralized. “The barrier to acquire IP depends upon who you are, whom you know, and what you can contribute back to the network. Your reputation with the community figures into your ability to access IP, so if you’re a leech, snitch, or just a jerk, you’ll find yourself isolated or at least find the acquisition value higher.”
China is, after all, the country where guanxi, or relationships, are a businessman’s biggest asset. In practice, this means that when business goes well, operations and negotiations evolve quickly towards a mutually shared goal, as opposed to the long negotiations needed to license a formal IP agreement. Yet things can go south equally fast if either party changes its mind.
“The guy who made this phone made it to make money,” Bunnie reminds us. Gongkai is an ecosystem of shared business interests, not egalitarianism. Yet, he says, it proves “innovation is possible in a society that doesn’t follow Western IP conventions”. Hear hear.