China Dawn: The Story of a Technology and Business Revolutionby David Sheff
Imagine living through the breakthrough moments of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the other icons of today's new economy. The kind of technological revolution that they led in Silicon Valley is now sweeping through China, but with much more dramatic implications. The dynamic entrepreneurs who are using technology to radically transform business and cultural life in
Imagine living through the breakthrough moments of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the other icons of today's new economy. The kind of technological revolution that they led in Silicon Valley is now sweeping through China, but with much more dramatic implications. The dynamic entrepreneurs who are using technology to radically transform business and cultural life in China are fighting not only outdated business models and a tumultuous economy but also an unpredictable government that has a love-hate relationship with the Net, at once pushing its expansion at a feverish pace and censoring it. As Duncan Clark, cofounder of BDA, an Internet consulting company in Beijing, told author David Sheff, "This environment the regulations, the competition, the political uncertainties makes these the fastest, most courageous, nimblest-thinking people globally. To deal with this level of risk and still sleep is no small accomplishment. But they're hooked on it like some Chinese are becoming hooked on Starbucks cappuccino."
In this irresistible, groundbreaking book, Sheff takes us into the trenches of the Chinese technology revolution, introducing the major and minor players who are leading China into the twenty-first century. Players like Bo Feng, the charismatic former sushi chef who is now one of the leading venture capitalists in China. And Edward Tian, a national hero who has been described as China's Steve Jobs and Bill Gates combined, who left his own start-up on the eve of its IPO in order to lead the government's attempt to bring broadband to the entire nation, in the process leapfrogging the United States, Europe, and the rest of Asia with the longest and fastest network in the world.
As the U.S. technological revolution wanes, business leaders will be looking to the billion-plus potential customers in China for new growth. In addition, the world's newest member of the World Trade Organization will no longer be a bystander in the global economy; it will be a fierce competitor. And when hundreds of million Chinese have access to unprecedented information and communication, China itself will be profoundly altered. Jay Chang, an analyst who covers China for Credit Suisse First Boston, sums the seismic nature of the changes: "What happens when China successfully transforms from a mainly agrarian/industrial nation into one that has significant input from the information technology industry? What happens when eighty percent of the state-owned enterprises in China are able to link economically to the global Internet on fast pipes? What happens when China's engineering talent pool is able to gain access to high-end computing resources and exchange ideas and information easily with their global peers? What happens when fifty percent of the Chinese population gets wired in ten years six hundred million people, the largest number of Internet users in the world?" With its compelling, character-driven story, researched over the course of three years, China Dawn will be the definitive book on the subject.
"China," writes David Sheff, is now "one of the most vibrant places on the planet, where each day has a life-or-death sense of purpose, despair, frustration, opportunity, hope, and dread." As this quotation reveals, Sheff's prose is as energetic and alive as his chosen subject, the digital revolution that is "invisibly but profoundly" transforming one of the world's oldest cultures into an economic and technological powerhouse.
For a sense of the book's scope, consider some of the scenarios Sheff sketches in his preface. For instance, half of China's population is scheduled to become connected to the Internet within the next decade, creating an online community of 600 million users that could become the largest market for American technology products. And since the ability to exchange scientific, political, and personal information accompanies Internet access, the digitalization of China could just be a prelude to an eventual democratization of the country. The consequences of "digital packets and beams of light" could be staggering, particularly since any change in the Chinese government will have a tremendous impact on the entire global community.
Sheff approaches his subject by focusing on two young Chinese information technology leaders: Bo Feng, investment banker and venture capitalist, and Edward Tian, CEO of China Netcom Corporation (CNC). The force that drives both men came into being with the Tiananmen Square tragedy: Like many Chinese students abroad at the time, they wanted to return to China to participate in the struggle for reform and to peacefully avenge the fate of the student protesters. Both men resolved to use the business acumen they acquired in the United States as an agent of change, although that resolve is also balanced by a patriotic emotion that is very compelling. Although there have been other group portraits of entrepreneurs in action (Randall Stross' eBoys being the most compelling), China Dawn draws you into its narrative with a power that exceeds that of any other similar book. After all, the destiny of humanity could hinge upon what happens in China. Written with more zeal and energy than most thrillers, this is a book that you'll find to be pleasurable as well as educational, entertaining as well as serious. (Holly McGuire and Sunil Sharma)
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Read an Excerpt
With Rice and Rifles
It is the summer of 1998, when the futuristic Capital Airport is under construction across the tarmac, so our 747 parks at old Beijing Terminal, a blocky warehouse with the unmistakable design flair of Stalinist China: emaciated green. After maneuvering through immigration, I am met by a chauffeur. As instructed, I follow him outside to a scuffed charcoal Buick. He holds open the rear door and speaks a rehearsed greeting in English: “Welcome to China. Fasten your seat belt.”
Rarely have I received advice that is more prescient. The driver, like the mass of Beijing drivers, attacks the gas pedal and horn with equal glee, untroubled by lanes, one-way signs, or roadway shoulders. A small jade charm, like a glass LifeSaver, dangles on a red string from the rearview mirror. For safety. Over the course of the harrowing drive along tree-lined highways, we narrowly miss a man on a rickshaw, a van that transports people and split pork carcasses, a truck spilling green melons, and hundreds of bicyclists, including one who is balancing sheets of corrugated metal on his head.
The car speeds by a building-long sign of the times, a mural depicting a farmer with a hoe alongside a technician soldering an integrated circuit. The title painted in slanted red lettering: agriculture, technology'hand in hand working for the country. Mottoes like this one, ubiquitous on billboards and banners, are as stilted as the slogans from the Cultural Revolution that implored the Chinese to embrace Mao Zedong Thought and denounce the imperialists (us!), “capitalist roaders,” and their running dogs.
Facing three men around a cuneiform dining table in an undecorated private room, Bo sticks out among the gathering. He has a fresh buzz haircut, titanium-framed glasses, and an improbable Nike ensemble, while the others wear short-sleeved shirts, dark pants, and black shoes.
Bo introduces me. Sitting at the corner of the wedge is Edward Tian. Next to him is Liu Yadong, a slightly taller and thinner man with high cheekbones and a pinched face, a pale complexion, and a floppy pompadour. Bo says that Liu is Edward's old friend and his company's chief operating officer. The other man is Gong Hongjia, youthful in his mid-twenties with a broad face and a thick broom of jet-black hair. Gong, I'm told, is the founder of a successful start-up. He founded Dekang to market software he developed to bill telephone calls just as the wireless boom began in China. He has 30 percent of the market and sales of $6 million. “Gong Hongjia's company is the leader in its field, but there is growing competition from abroad,” says Bo.
Gong looks up and half smiles. “Yes,” he says. “We are fighting harder. We are fighting with rice and rifles.”
Mao once said that the people of China would persevere against the far better armed forces of Chiang Kai-shek's American-backed Kuomintang army “with rice and rifles.” At Gong's appropriation of the Maoism, the group laughs heartily.
“That's us fighting the West,” says Gong, now solemn. “But make no mistake. Intel, HP, Microsoft, Oracle, and the others assume that China will be theirs, but they underestimate the Chinese entrepreneur.”
Bo adds, “Most foreign companies hire a group of highly paid executives who live in $10,000 a month apartments in Shanghai. A lot of U.S. companies send over a sales-and-marketing team and think they'll nail China. They don't have the awareness or the drive that the Chinese entrepreneurs have. There's no comparison between entrepreneurs who run businesses in China and U.S. companies that have outposts here.”
He orders dinner and we watch a young waiter stick his hand into a glass case that is teeming with vipers and “eye” snakes. He snatches one tightly below the head and carries it, its body whipping and writhing, away into a back room. The snake appears later on a platter. There are crispy bony chunks grilled and painted with sweet vinegar and shallot sauce. The snake's skin, thinly sliced, has been tossed with cucumbers in a salad. Each person is presented with a pair of tulip shot glasses filled in turn with crimson red and cloudy yellow liquids. One holds rice wine mixed with the snake's venom and the other is rice wine with its blood. Bo lifts his glass and the rest of us follow him. “To China,” he toasts, and we drink down the bloody elixir, which travels simultaneously down my spine and straight to the backs of my eyes, which tear up. Bo has an enormous smile. “Now you are Chinese,” he says. The others laugh uproariously and Bo says, “You'll have wild dreams tonight.”
Alongside upholstered Nokias sit plates of the snake along with lobster sashimi (the lobster is still moving) and baked tortoise. Chairman Mao once said, “The Revolution is not a dinner party,” but this one appears to be. It is a feast fit for heads of state, or in Bo's case one of China's first dedicated high-tech VCs.
It strikes me that this meeting would have been inconceivable only a short time ago. Venture capitalists may be a familiar breed in the West, but Bo is still a rarity in China. For most intents and purposes, Bo is like his brethren in Silicon Valley. Like them, he provides key resources'capital, advice, and leadership'to promising companies for equity and fees that, if all goes well, lead to an “exit” (read that: a killing, preferably an acquisition or an IPO on the Great Wall Street) for his investors. However, unlike most Stateside VCs, Bo speaks both as a player and a patriot...China Dawn. Copyright © by David Sheff. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
There is a new revolution in China, one which intends to unite the people of this vast and populous nation as never before; both highways, roadways and the information superhighway, are being constructed simultaneously, leapfrogging a rural economy into the modern-day information age. "In China, I feel the explosive combination of forces aligning to create the kind of change that alters the course of history," writes David Sheff in the introduction to China Dawn, his latest book. About the entrepreneurs who are trying to spark a social transformation by bringing the latest information technology to the planet's most populous country, China Dawn, researched over three years, is the chronicle of the nascent Chinese technology revolution a movement with, Sheff says, "the immodest goal of transforming the life of more than a fifth of the world's people."
David Sheff's articles and interviews have appeared in Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Wired, Outside, Forbes ASAP, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Esquire and Observer Magazine in England, Foreign Literature in Russia and Playboy (Shueisha) in Japan. He is currently on assignment for Fortune and Vanity Fair. His book, Game Over, was published by Random House in the United States and Hodder and Stoughton in Great Britain as well as in Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, Israel, and other countries. Vintage published the paperback edition in 1993. The book, reissued in 1999 with a new introduction, was universally praised by reviewers for Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Forbes, USA Today, The New York Review of Books, and hundreds of domestic and international magazines and newspapers. The New York Times called it "beguiling" and "irresistible. . . almost as hypnotic as a successful video game." The Houston Chronicle said, "This book is a must-read. Game Over is about as readable as a business book can be." The Chicago Tribune called it "A cross between Barbarians at the Gate and The Soul of the New Machine."
The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, conducted in 1980, became a Literary Guild Selection book. Other interviews, including those with Ansel Adams, nuclear physicist Ted Taylor, Gore Vidal, Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks, Sting, Scott Peck, Betty Friedan, and Keith Haring, received wide recognition, as did his "Portrait of a Generation" in Rolling Stone. His radio documentaries for National Public Radio on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird won several awards. He also wrote and edited "Heart Play: Unfinished Dialogue," which won a Grammy Award nomination for Best Spoken Word Recording of 1984.
Sheff is currently a contributing editor of Playboy, Wired, and Yahoo! Internet Life and is on assignment for Fortune and Vanity Fair. He was formerly an editor of New West and California magazines..
He attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a degree in social science. He lives in San Francisco, California with his wife and three children.
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