Can China build its own Silicon Valley?
¡°Zhongguancun¡± doesn¡¯t roll off the Western tongue easily, but it will soon be an address that technology investors must learn. For 25 years, locales from Singapore to the south of France have tried to create their own Silicon Valleys, but the original¡¯s remarkable spirit has never been duplicated. China, however, is putting the finishing touches on its own Silicon Valley ¡ª and this time, they may have found the recipe.
In Beijing last month I met with Meng Mei, a Tsinghua University professor and the managing director of the Tsinghua Science Park. As we stood at a tenth-floor window that looked out over hundreds of acres under development, Meng explained that the Science Park facilities weren¡¯t just for research. Tsinghua is building an entire infrastructure of business support, from venture capital to legal services to property management. There are even support groups for entrepreneurs.
¡°We need a culture,¡± says Meng, ¡°that gives small companies the confidence to succeed.¡±
That, of course, is part of Silicon Valley¡¯s secret sauce ¡ª an entrepreneurial infrastructure that can take a company from napkin doodle to business cards and a health plan in a week.
The other ingredient is a strong academic institution. Silicon Valley was born at Stanford and some of its first companies were launched in an industrial park that Stanford built in the early 1950s. Tsinghua University is arguably China¡¯s single most prestigious school: out of the 7 million Chinese students who qualify for college each year, only two thousand are admitted to Tsinghua. And while Tsinghua is best-known for science and engineering, like Stanford it also offers a top-drawer business school. And, just as does Stanford, Tsinghua not only allows but encourages its professors and students to start companies.
Unlike Silicon Valley, however, Tsinghua is starting with another strong advantage: ¡°sea turtles.¡± That¡¯s the local nickname for the native-born Chinese who receive educations in the United States and return to start companies in China. Ahmad Bahai, chief technologist for National Semiconductor and also a professor at Stanford and Berkeley, says: ¡°Recently I¡¯ve had some very good Chinese students whom I offer jobs at National. But instead they want to return home.¡±
One reason is that it¡¯s much cheaper to start a company in China than in
Silicon Valley. The classic sea-turtle is Charles Zhang, who graduated from MIT
in 1994 and returned to China to launch Sohu.com with a few hundred thousand
dollars; the Internet portal is now worth half a billion dollars. I met one
sea-turtle at last month¡¯s Asian Technology Roundtable in Beijing who explained
his departure from Silicon Valley very simply: ¡°Chinese engineers work harder
The first difference, according to Joe Schoendorf, a long-time Silicon Valley venture capitalist, is simple: ¡°The Chinese are born entrepreneurs.¡± Even in the 1980s, when private enterprise was only tentatively sanctioned, the entrepreneurial spirit was everywhere. Although it wasn¡¯t clear what was permissible, roadside vendors appeared in droves, opening tiny market stalls right under the rifles of the Red Guard. By now, Chinese entrepreneurship is unstoppable. Last month I was walking beside a big apartment building in Beijing, idly looking at the iron grills installed over the ground floor window-wells. One window-well, however, had been completely boarded up, with only a small square opening. When I peered in, a weathered Chinese face looked back at me, in front of a tiny shelf of soda bottles, matches and soap. The proprietor had turned a three by five foot window-well into her own little market.
Another striking difference between Japan and China is the Chinese success in learning English. One of the eternal mysteries of Japan is why, in a country where the post-war constitution mandates English study, so few speak it well without overseas study. By contrast, lots of Chinese who have never left the mainland speak excellent English. In fact, it¡¯s a national obsession. During my last visit to China, the second annual English Speaker competition was just ending: a nationwide event in which 6 million students compete to be finalists on a national primetime television special to choose the best English speaker in China. (Hey, we¡¯ve got "American Idol.") But the drive for English is not just to chat with Americans ¡ª it¡¯s because English is now the worldwide language of business.