I have had the privilege of traveling to about 55 countries as part of my job over the last 30 years. And while I really enjoy Italy, France, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the one country that fascinates me the most is China. I first went to China in the early 1990’s, just when they were starting to establish their special trade zones. At that time the government was still leery of outsiders and we could not travel anywhere without a personal guide of some sort.
Fast forward 20 years and the China I visited in 1990 is not the same place it is today. China has emerged as an industrial powerhouse and a major manufacturer of all types of goods, especially electronics and computers. I became aware of China’s real interest in computer manufacturing during a dinner I had in Taipei with ACER founder, Stan Shih in 1991. At the time, it was illegal for any Taiwanese company to do business with mainland China. But Mr Shih told me that he was working through private channels and was planning to put one of his computer manufacturing facilities in China shortly.
Indeed, within a few years, China had opened its doors to various partners throughout the world and started down a path to become one of the major manufacturers of personal computers and tech related products. But China has gone down another path that has enhanced its role in the world of technology. They have made hardware, semiconductor and software engineering a keystone of their educational system and in fact, they produce the most doctorates in these fields then any other country in the world. And all of their engineers and most of their college educated youth take English as a second major, thus making it possible for them to communicate well within the international business community.
Last fall I want to China to speak to a couple of thousand software developers who had gathered to learn more about developing specifically for smart phones. They came from all over China and represented top students from the universities as well as individual developers who were specifically interested in developing for the Android platform. Although the iPhone is a hot item in China and there are a lot of people developing for the iPhone, most of the major Chinese handset makers are backing Android (a completely customized version) and this will clearly be the OS of choice for smart phones in this country.
To put this into perspective, China will sell about 500 million cell phones in 2011 and at least half of them will be smart phones, with Android phones taking the lion’s share of this market. I spoke to a professor at one of the universities after my speech and he told me that two years ago he had about 30 students signed up for his smart phone developer class. This year he had over 3000 sign up for it.
What is perhaps most striking about modern day China is that a middle class is developing and even in the outer provinces, people have cell phones and TV’s. And the traffic jams in Beijing are amazing. One of my hosts told me that there are at least 100 million cars in and around Beijing now, which unfortunately makes it the most polluted place I have been to in years, next to Mexico City.
Thirst For Education
But the thing that both impresses me and concerns me the most about China is the incredible drive and interest in education that makes these students tick. After years of incredible oppression, the ability to learn more freely and to think for themselves is surely a welcome change from the past. Their emphasis on math and sciences at all levels of education puts them so ahead of the US that it is frightening. I don’t want to get on a high horse here but to not emphasize math and science in the US educational system will only put the US at a disadvantage for future competition, especially in the world of technology.
While China clearly has made major strides in education and commerce and has become a powerhouse in manufacturing, banking and world trade, I was reminded that it still is a society that has a lot of controls over its information and people. During my visit I could not get access to Facebook or Twitter at all. It was blocked, at least through the server of my Hilton Hotel Internet connection. And various types of searches through Google were also blocked, although on this trip I had less trouble using Google then in the past.
And it is still clear that China favors home grown properties over outside sites like Google, Yahoo, etc. Baidu is their top search engine and China created apps drive most of the smart phone market. But what a lot of people don’t know is that a great deal of the apps created for the rest of the world is actually coded in China. I deal with many US based software firms who use Chinese software shops to help create, fine tune and support their overall software development projects. China’s influence on hardware and software is much more far reaching then people understand.
But it is the drive of the young people I met on this last trip that really struck a chord with me. I spoke to dozens of kids who just want to be normal, hard working folks who can contribute to the world of technology development. Some were true entrepreneurs and dreamed of having their own companies and in some way making it big. They know of the many tech millionaires and billionaires that have risen within the Chinese tech community and some aspire to that type of fortune.
But for most, they just want to have a better life for themselves and their families. They want a simple apartment and the big prize for them is to own their very own car. To them that is the symbol of success. More importantly, they are serious students of technology. The kids I met are not techies in the sense that they just love technology. Instead they represent millions of engineering students who want to invent new technology products, not just play with them.
Although I still have great faith in Silicon Valley and its role in the world of technology development and the other key tech centers around the US dedicated to technological inventions, China’s emphasis on math and science and its focus on technology innovation cannot be ignored. This is the real role they are playing in advancing the world of technology. In financial circles, we clearly know that China is a country to be reckoned with, especially since they hold most of our debt. But its rise as a tech powerhouse and one that has millions of engineers dedicated to finding new tech solutions and products means that its competitive position in tech will only rise. It should be admired and feared at the same time. The US really is in danger of losing its edge in tech if it does not reverse its course and make math and science more important to our educational system.