Sunday, October 30, 2005

Zhongguancun is the "China Valley"

With the increasing influence of China -- as global partner or global threat -- Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of China, will continue to attract attention from the West. In this vein, I propose that Zhongguancun be known in English as "China Valley" to attest to both its China origin and its purported affinity with Silicon Valley, California.

In the Bay Area and environs, along with those who claim to be insiders to it, Silicon Valley is known as the "Valley". Therefore the nickname given to the China Valley should come naturally.

In addition, this should remove the difficult surrounding the pronunciation of Zhongguancun -- Zhong, guan, cun -- which is quite diffiult for Westerners, and the awkwardness of ZGC, an acronym. "The Silicon Valley of China" works well as a name, but it is too wordy to use in ordinary conversation.

I would be curious as to opinions on this name. It seems to work well. Let me know your ideas.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Problem Solving

Over the course of 2 years doing research on the Silicon Valley of China, I encountered numerous problems that required skill, perseverance, networking, and creativity to solve. The difficulties ranged from mundane?finding a university and professor to sponsor my research?to the cultural?convincing top executives at Beijing UFSoft Software Corporation that I could conduct objective research on their company operations. There were several different skill sets that I drew on to solve these problems. Besides my knowledge of Chinese culture and language, I sized up the situations, networked with relevant people, and persevered in accomplishing my goals to solve these problems.

To conduct research in Chinese companies is no simple feat. The first step was to obtain a Chinese visa for one year at a university in order to gain sponsorship both for the visa process and for future inquires into my research goals. Using leads from my research committee, I contact two Peking University professors. I also renewed a connection with the Peking University Mandarin Center, where I undergone advanced language training two years pervious. I arranged for one of the professors to write a sponsoring letter which I had delivered to the Mandarin Center. In two weeks, using money I had sent with application, an express letter containing my visa documents arrived. Facing the initial problems of visa and sponsorship, I moved quickly and arranged to have necessary documents delivered and a enrollment letter at Peking University prepared in a total time of less than one month. I was on my way to Beijing to study companies in the Silicon Valley of China.

Two of the three companies were relatively small, with less than ten people. In those two cases, access was not a problem since no proprietary technology or influential information was at stake. Despite this fact, two problems arose: one was how I would introduce myself to these companies; two was how I would explain my research so that I could both gain necessary access to managers and workers and guarantee the participants not to violate their rights as human subjects. I relied on an old friend to introduce me to companies that he knew beforehand. This method guaranteed a minimum of trust, which I subsequently used to explain my research project on the successes of China’s Silicon Valley, a patriotic thing for people in China. This cast my research in a positive light, which facilitated access to managers and workers, as well as revealing the nature of my research that protected individual’s rights of whether or not to participate.

Finally, the biggest challenge I faced in my research was how to get access to a large, prestigious company. I spent one month contacting friends, advisors, and government officials I knew to help me. On a hunch, I emailed to head of Beijing UFSoft for an interview. After the interview, over diner, I mentioned that I needed on the ground information about a large company in China. The executive suggested that I work at UFSoft. This was the opportunity I had hoped for but, knowing how China business and culture work, I could not suggest it myself. I allowed the executive to think that it was he who had thought of the idea. My initiative in setting up the interview, calling on friends to guarantee my character, as well as understanding Chinese culture and this executive’s personality lead to a solution and my access to UFSoft for research. I accomplished my goals through initiative, skill, networking and perseverance that are reflected most poignantly in this example.

Interpersonal Skills

There is one particular time person in particular, the first six months of 2004, when my interpersonal skills were tested and displayed to the extreme. During this period, I spent half a year amongst the migrants and would-be entrepreneurs who work in the IT/electronics markets of Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of China. These women and men are not the lofty paragon of technology virtuosity that China’s Silicon Valley is meant to contain. Instead, they are an eclectic population, coming from all corners of China with education ranging from middle school drop-out to technical community college graduate. Living and working amongst them, I experienced tests of my ideas of privacy, rudeness, hygiene. My responses, from anger and frustration to compassion and understanding, reveal the greatest extent to which my interpersonal skills can be stretched.

Experiencing IT/electronics markets for the first, one sees chaos. Boxes seem to move up and down the crowded aisles by themselves, while people spit, smoke, and throw trash outside their stores, regardless of who may be outside or walking by. But even more poignant for an American are people’s eyes. Glances become stares and shopping for a new printer is more like being an animal in a mobile zoo. Hearing only “ha-lou!” (the Chinese transliteration of hello), one quickly tires of these markets.

But I wanted to understand the mixture of technology and business in China. So, on a daily basis, I came to the markets, meeting people store after store, who constantly drew attention to my appearance, my race, and my nationality. In turn, I emphasized politeness. I observed every courtesy and custom that I knew of. Some one once joked with me that I was “more Chinese than the Chinese.” The manners I displayed had been honed over previous years of experience with China.

Store by store and counter by counter, I used my difference to create similarity. Slowly, a group of regular store owners, colleagues, and even friends emerged against the backdrop of chaos and stares. Addressing elder migrants as “big brother,” adopting Chinese mannerisms and postures, and generally being sympathetic to their opinions (at least initially), I was able to enter circles that exist in the IT/electronics markets.

What is even more significance, however, is that I gained an audience. While I learned about China’s technology migrants and emergent market economy, I also was able to speak to a receptive and interested audience about the reasons for the Iraq war, the meaning of human rights, and how unions are formed. Had I not gained trust and feelings of commonality, I be ignored and dismissed. Instead, open dialogue and thoughtful discussion took place as a result of adapting to behaviors, customs, and forms of address that made the IT/electronics migrants of the Silicon Valley of China comfortable.