A Chinese tech entrepreneur is on a mission to bring Americans up to speed about how advances in technology have dramatically changed Chinese society and culture in recent years, and about how China and the United States have a lot to learn from each other in the areas of technology and innovation.
That entrepreneur is Jack Zhang, founder and CEO of GeekPark, a tech innovation advocacy forum in Beijing, who thinks understanding the “geek culture” in China would go a long way toward helping people in the United States get a fuller appreciation of what’s happening on the technology front in that country.
“The concept of ‘geek’ in China and the United States is quite different,” Zhang said in a recent interview. “In China, if someone calls you a geek, that’s a compliment — it doesn’t mean you’re weird or socially awkward. It just means you’re super cool and you know about technology.”
It was a fascinating interview, and I opened it by asking Zhang what misperceptions Americans have about China from a technology perspective. He said people in the United States can easily misunderstand what’s really happening there, because China has changed so drastically in the last 10 years:
Technology has had such an impact, and has changed society — the social culture. People may have an image of China the way it was 20 or 30 years ago, so they need more information to catch up. Even 10 years ago, China had very basic social services systems, and a very immature media industry. In the last 10 years, the internet and mobile technology have changed Chinese society very quickly. All of those geeks have created applications that have changed people’s lives. Now in China, you can order whatever you want online and have it delivered in 24 hours — delivery is totally free because of competition between Jingdong and Alibaba. They want to improve the user experience so they can get more market share. Also, the people in China are all using WeChat, so information power is rising for people in China. My friends and I were just talking about that topic yesterday. We talked about how 10 years ago when I was a reporter, the amount of information I got in one week is the same as what I get now in one day. People are getting 10 times more information — that means people know things, and society will be more open and equal, and people will be more intelligent because they have so much information compared to 10 years ago. Most of the change has been brought about by information technology, the internet, and all those geeks who have changed people’s way of life.
I cited a report released in December by the National Security Agency and the Department of Energy that expressed concern that China may surpass the United States in the area of high-performance computing by 2020. I asked Zhang how he thinks China is managing to gain so fast on the United States in the area of advanced computing. He said he didn’t know how much money the Chinese government is spending in this area, but he was able to speak about the private sector in China:
I can tell you in the private sector, there is a great deal of capital focused on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and new technology like IoT — it has created a new concept of intelligence. We have a saying here that a “new era of intelligence” is happening in China — that’s the theme in the next decade for the internet and technology. This new era of intelligence will release so many possibilities, and change industries. For example, the most popular startup company in China is Mobike, a dock-less city bicycle-sharing system in which people can leave the bike wherever they want. Because the bicycles have built-in intelligence, the operator knows where every bicycle is located, the usage, the status, so they can operate more efficiently. If the bicycle is lost or stolen, it can be traced, recovered, repaired and used again. So that’s the sort of thing the new era of intelligence makes possible, and an example of why technological development in China is accelerating so quickly. Again, I’m not in a position to talk about the government’s strategy, but I can share the perspective of startup companies and innovators.
I noted that a lot of students from China are attending universities in the United States — over 328,000, more than from any other country, according the Institute of International Education. I asked Zhang why he thinks so many Chinese students come to the United States for higher education. He said a lot of Chinese people are interested in learning in a different environment and education system:
Silicon Valley, for example, is the perfect place to study tech innovation, even better than China right now. A concurrent trend is that many of these Chinese students gain experience as engineers and businessmen, and come back to China because right now, China is a better environment in which to do a startup. They have the market, the capital, and even more intelligent people and potential partners. So I think it’s become a pattern — people go to the United States to gain the perspective of a global entrepreneur, and then they come back to China and start their business, and then go global. I think that may be the pattern for the next decade.
I asked Zhang what lessons he thinks the United States can learn from China to strengthen its competitiveness in the global economy. He said the United States can learn from companies like Mobike to build intelligence into their products, and create more advanced products:
It’s like rebuilding the world, the way the world was rebuilt, for example, when we learned to forge steel and no longer had to rely on copper tools. Chinese startups, and Chinese society in general, are more determined, and they have access to the market and the capital that enable them to try new things. There’s a focus on the user experience, and the value that can be brought to customers — and China is doing that very, very fast. Competitive tension is far greater than it is in the United States. Maybe not every innovation is suitable for the U.S. market, but I believe what’s happened in the last 10 years in China will be duplicated in some other parts of the world. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, Zambia, and many others in many ways are similar to where China was 10 years ago, with very basic social services and immature industry. But through technology and the internet they can change it very fast by unleashing a lot of energy. So the lesson the United States can learn from China is that there are still many things that can be done, using technology, to change society very, very fast.
Finally, I asked Zhang what lessons China can learn from the United States. His response:
There are still many things China can learn from the United States in the area of technology innovation, and from the research being conducted at universities to bring technology into business. The United States really has a great system to create that energy to transform business. In China, there are still many, many things to learn, and the thing Chinese geeks most want to learn from the United States is the spirit to try different things — what we call the “Silicon Valley spirit.” I believe the new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs already has some of those qualities — they believe in technology, they want to do innovation, and they want to build products for good. They believe technology will open new possibilities. And they believe if they can build products for good — not just for money — they will make their companies stronger and more lasting. Startup companies are born with those qualities. It’s a trend that we are very optimistic will make China better.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.