Swapping One Tech Hub for Another
A U.S. scholar shares views on China's technological growth
By Bailey Marsheck  ·  2020-02-07  ·   Source: NO.6-7 FEBRUARY 13, 2020
A robot product on display during an innovation exhibition at Zhongguancun, Beijing, on June 13, 2019 (XINHUA)

When I moved to Beijing's Haidian District in August 2019 to begin my studies at Peking University, I hadn't foreseen how my lifestyle would be so fundamentally altered by the city's deep technological interconnection. Yet only a few months later, the thought of handling payments with cash or debit/credit cards instead of WeChat, China's popular multipurpose app, via a QR code seems practically arcane. In the United States, we often still use chip readers and sign our receipts, drawing puzzled looks from Chinese tourists.

I wasn't entirely ignorant to the innovations propagated in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, but rather unprepared for how central these technologies would become in my daily life. After all, my childhood was spent in Palo Alto, California, the center of Silicon Valley and home of renowned tech firms. I attended school alongside children who aspired to follow in their parents' footsteps as employees of companies such as Facebook and Microsoft. Self-driving cars were tested by Waymo on the street in front of my house. Naturally, I supposed I had experienced the unequivocal pinnacle of technological immersion. However, my time in Beijing has demonstrated that technological sophistication manifests itself in a multitude of ways.

Although technology takes center stage in San Francisco Bay Area's cultural ethos and its residents believe they have the tools and wherewithal to create a fundamentally better world, Beijing possesses many innovation hallmarks and other surprises. The presence of emergent connective technologies transcend culture to make up the urban landscape.

One can scarcely glance down the street at any time of day without spotting countless scooters laden with food or parcels, ordered seamlessly through one of several Chinese "super apps." That is, if the view isn't obstructed by the ubiquitous rows of shared bikes which can be unlocked by the mere scan of a QR code.

The Zhongguancun area in Haidian hosts an abundance of tech-related establishments, a consequence of China's initiative to put top public universities, research labs and state-owned enterprises in close vicinity. Most visible of these efforts is government-sponsored Inno Way, a startup ecosystem that provides dozens of incubator and Internet company offices at subsidized rents. Situated just south of Peking University, it is emblematic of preferential policies aimed at fostering globally competitive private tech firms. While government investment has been significant, the returns have been substantial.

Though Silicon Valley also enjoyed government subsidies and preferential policies in its nascency, it has since embarked on a more organic development pathway. Today, its companies sometimes even explicitly defy the will of the U.S. Government. Contrast this with Zhongguancun, where private-public collaboration has led to a mass operationalization of technologies visible at every intersection. Although Silicon Valley remains the spiritual center of tech iteration and has inspired a generation of innovators the world over, it cannot claim the same level of public investment in tangible, interconnective technologies. For this reason, I think attempts to directly compare the merits of Zhongguancun with Silicon Valley or any other tech ecosystem are generally uninformative. On a practical level, technology impacts the lives of local people in fundamentally different ways.

As my curiosity with Chinese technology has grown throughout my own academic progression, it has been fascinating to observe the increasing linkage between my native Silicon Valley and the Middle Kingdom. People on the Chinese mainland have long purchased property, attended university and supplemented the high-skilled labor force in Silicon Valley. But in the last few years, Chinese tech titans Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have all set up research outposts within the area. Chinese haigui, professionals who have gone overseas and returned, migrate fluidly between the two locales in search of the greatest opportunities.

While many U.S. companies find their efforts to enter the Chinese market complicated by market restrictions, a number of tech firms including Google and Intel still maintain varying degrees of presence in Zhongguancun. After years of deriding Chinese tech firms as simplistic copycats, Silicon Valley's increasing adoption of ideas minted in Zhongguancun and the flow of venture capital to Chinese ventures have signaled a newfound respect for the merits of Chinese innovation.

Concurrently, my own conception of how innovation manifests in people's everyday life has been altered, providing one of many reasons why experiencing life in Beijing has taught me more about China than any number of classes could.

The author is a Yenching Academy scholar at Peking University from the United States

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

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