How A Nation of Tech Copycats Transformed Into A Hub For Innovation


Clive Thompson writing for Wired, an in-depth look at the exploding Chinese startup tech scene:

In China, this type of employee didn’t used to exist. Ten years ago, high tech observers complained that the nation didn’t have enough bold innovators. There were, of course, wildly profi­table high tech firms, but they rarely took creative risks and mostly just mimicked Silicon Valley: Baidu was a replica of Google, Tencent a copy of Yahoo, JD a version of Amazon. Young Chinese coders had programming chops that were second to none, but they lacked the drive of a Mark Zucker­berg or Steve Jobs. The West Coast mantra—fail fast, fail often, the better to find a hit product—seemed alien, even dangerous, to youths schooled in an educational system that focused on rote memorization and punished mistakes. Graduates craved jobs at big, solid firms. The goal was stability: Urban China had only recently emerged from decades of poverty, and much of the countryside was still waiting its turn to do so. Better to keep your head down and stay safe.

That attitude is vanishing now. It’s been swept aside by a surge in prosperity, bringing with it a new level of confi­dence and boldness in the country’s young urban techies. In 2000, barely 4 percent of China was middle-class—meaning with an income ranging from $9,000 to $34,000—but by 2012 fully two-thirds had climbed into that bracket. In the same time frame, higher education soared sevenfold: 7 million graduated college this year. The result is a generation both creative and comfortable with risk-taking. “We’re seeing people in their early twenties starting companies—people just out of school, and there are even some dropouts,” says Kai-Fu Lee, a Chinese venture capitalist and veteran of Apple, Microsoft, and Google, who has spent the past decade crisscrossing the nation, helping youths start firms. Now major cities are crowded with ambitious inventors and entrepreneurs, flocking into software accelerators and hackerspaces. They no longer want jobs at Google or Apple; like their counterparts in San Francisco, they want to build the next Google or Apple.

Also a close look at Xiaomi, number four in worldwide mobile phone sales. This is the company that could hurt the top three: Apple, Samsung, and Huawei.

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