What the West Doesn’t Know About China’s Silicon Valley

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Novelist Ning Ken first saw Beijing’s Zhongguancun neighborhood in 1973 as a 14-year-old on a school trip to the Summer Palace, former imperial gardens looted by European troops during the Opium Wars. “At that time, once you passed the zoo, Beijing was just countryside and farmland,” he says, recalling the bus ride heading northwest. Out the window and amid the fields, Ning saw the campuses of China’s most prestigious research institutions, which had birthed China’s nuclear program and hydroelectric dams. They included the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Peking and Tsinghua Universities. 

Today that stretch of road is the heart of China’s technology industry, a busy neighborhood with a subway stop and glass towers housing Chinese and Western tech companies. The neighborhood’s transformation mirrors the dramatic changes to China’s economy and culture over the past four decades. Tech companies that grew out of Zhongguancun expanded the boundaries of how businesses could operate—often by staying one step ahead of regulators—and came to shape Chinese power overseas.

In the West, coverage of China’s tech industry often focuses on how it is restricted or controlled by the government. In Ning’s telling, the innovators of Zhongguancun helped “liberate” the Chinese people from the strictures of a fully state-run economy by carving out a path for entrepreneurship as the country tentatively opened up.

When the first tech companies were established in Zhongguancun in early 1980s, every industry was state-owned, and every aspect of a person’s life was dictated by their danwei, or work unit, from where they lived to whom they married. When an entrepreneur named Wang Hongde left his research position at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1982 to start an IT company, taking several colleagues with him, it “tore a crack in the old system,” Ning says.

Two generations later, Zhongguancun and the rest of China are almost unrecognizable. People can chase fortunes and change careers in ways that would have been unthinkable in the early 1980s. Recent events have shown that change can still happen fast, with pressure from the bottom up, enabled in part by some Zhongguancun social media companies. In late November, people in cities across the country staged protests against extreme zero-Covid measures. Restrictions that after three pandemic years seemed permanent soon toppled, and China began reopening.

Red-Light Revolution

Ning, a native Beijinger, has published several acclaimed novels in China, but his first book to be translated into English is Zhong Guan Village: Tales From the Heart of China’s Silicon Valley, a nonfiction account of Zhongguancun’s history. It introduces the entrepreneurs and academics who built China’s tech industry, from the early days of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up policies in the late 1970s to more recent boom times, when Chinese tech firms like search giant Baidu and TikTok’s parent company ByteDance grew out of the neighborhood. 

Many of the people Ning introduces aren’t household names outside of China, but their stories illustrate how Zhongguancun’s entrepreneurs found clever ways to work within and around the system. Today, many are celebrated for their role in opening China’s economy and advancing its technology industry. “I want this book to not only show the path of reform and opening up over the past 40 years but also to show readers the spiritual wealth of these individuals,” he says, writing to WIRED in Chinese. “I’m a novelist. The core of my interests is always people, predicaments, growth, emotions, psychology, and the way society and history relate to those things.”