A speculative account of the electronic age that is dawning in China—one that, the author suggests, may soon bring both wealth and democracy to the world’s most populous nation.
Business journalist Sheff (Game Over, 1993) centers his narrative on Chinese-American entrepreneur Bo Feng, a former Marin County sushi chef who has, “in the swiftest and most unforeseeable career change since Jesse Ventura’s,” remade himself into one of China’s foremost investment bankers and venture capitalists. Budding capitalists on this side of the water would do well to study Feng’s career trajectory, which hinges, Sheff often remarks, on boundless energy and a willingness to sacrifice any semblance of a life for work; even by Chinese standards—and, as one of Sheff’s informants, American venture capitalist Len Baker, remarks, “I have never seen a work ethic at any time in Silicon Valley like I see in China”—Feng’s output and stamina are remarkable. Thanks to his enthusiasm and an ability to navigate a political system bent on total control, Feng has helped launch a revolution that promises to remake China’s economy—and, in a few years, to establish the world’s largest base of Internet users (and potential e-commerce customers) there. “The potential for a Western-style digital divide between Internet haves and have-nots is enormous in China,” Sheff observes, but China has a paradoxical advantage: it has so little existing infrastructure to remake that the whole country is something of an electronic tabula rasa. Chinese Net surfers, he writes, are doing what everyone else is doing: paying for term papers, playing games, downloading pornography. But they’re also seeking information from the outside world, and this hunger may fuel democratizing elements—though, as Sheff observes, in the last few months “hard-liners who are the most threatened by the free flow of bits and bytes . . . are gaining power.”
Solid business-reporting skills, backed by wide access to key players, make this an especially useful case study for would-be China hands.