The New ‘Shanzhai’ Phenomenon

While China is well-established as the manufacturing hub of the world, the countries recent efforts to pivot towards a serviced based economy are particularly fascinating. As the number of educated working class in China increased around the turn of the century so did the popularity the popularity of the ‘Shanzhai’ phenomenon. With their practical manufacturing knowledge and abundance of local resources, many factory workers saw the opportunity to reproduce branded products at a lower cost, to turn a profit, in what grew into China’s copycat culture. While this topic is often controversial, I see how in many ways the modern practice of ‘Shanzhai’ reflects the intentions of the open source and maker movements of Western nations, in their attempt to democratise innovations.

Recently, China has seen a dramatic growth of start-ups who are moving out of the manufacturing sector and catering to the unique needs of its growing population through bottom-up services and systems. One such innovative Chinese company is Tencent, who developed and launched a cross-platform instant messaging app called WeChat. The service was designed for users in highly urbanised cities across China and experienced rapid adoption at a rate unmatched by any other social network, with currently over 700 million monthly users according to Business Insider. The application filled the market share where Western social media networks may have dominated, if they weren’t blocked by the ‘Great Firewall of China’ (a term coined by Wired magazine in 1997 to describe the countries strict national censorship efforts). While WeChat matches many of the services offered by Facebook, Twitter and the like, its true success comes from the long catalogue of features the company invented and tailored to the needs of busy Chinese citizens. The application offers instant messaging, voice and video calling, through to sharing ‘Moments’ on your newsfeed, playing games within the app, shake to meet new friends and paying for or booking local services. In 2015 WeChat even adopted a heat mapping feature which showed crowd-density in popular Chinese destinations to help citizens better plan their day.

The adoption of technology and mass-urbanisation of China was the perfect storm that saw the rise of WeChat. And while the platform may well have been designed for the countries large youth population, its services have been adopted by 1.8 million users over sixty years of age. (Ke Y. 2015) For many Chinese citizens WeChat has played a pivotal role in keeping their family connected due to their locational separation as a result of increasingly crowded and costly urbanised cities. In my research I found this most notably embodied in the WeChat picture frame designed by 3nod, a renowned Chinese design and innovation firm. The electronic picture frame automatically displays images and messages that you tag to be shared with family and he intervention allows for older citizens who may be living a distance away from loved ones to keep up with their day-to-day routines.

Although, there are concerns about the centralisation of personal data generated by WeChat, it is an impressive example of the how tailored solutions have potential to be adopted on a mass scale in contemporary China.

Written by Kevin Millingham



BI Intellegence 2016, WeChat breaks 700million active monthly users, Business Insider, viewed 30 October 2016, <>.

Geeky China 2016, Share your “Moments” from the 570 million strong WeChat network with this digital picture frame, video recording, YouTube, viewed 30 October 2016, <>.

Ke Y. 2015, Ageing on WeChat: The Impact of Social Media on Elders in Urban China ‘, Journal of Visual and Media Anthropology, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 8-21.

Lawrence D. 2016, Life in the People’s Republic of WeChat, Bloomberg, viewed 30 October 2016, <>.

Tindie 2016, Market in Huaqiangbei, viewed 30 October 2016, <>.

Wired 2016, Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of hardware, video recording, YouTube, viewed 30 October 2016, <>.

Yin C. & and Jinran Z. 2015, Seniors prove Wechat is not just for young, China Dailey Information Co, viewed 30 October 2016, <>.

Posted in D: Chinese Contemporary Culture

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