Where a Nation Plots Its Hardwired Future

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Every great nation has a place where its fondest dreams are made. In China that place is Haidian, its own Silicon Valley, a mishmash of technology startups and retail shops that has grown up on the periphery of Peking University. Lining the streets of Haidian are some of China's finest electronics shops, selling surprisingly sophisticated computer parts and peripherals. Like Paris' Champs Elysées or New York's Broadway, Haidian is a celebration of a national myth: China's ability to change itself and become, once again, great among nations. It's not that technology is a part of China's future, says Edward Zeng, whose Sparkice Internet Café is a Haidian landmark. Technology is China's future. Ever since Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms in 1978, the country has been mad for technology. Engineer-turned-software developer Wang Xuan is a good example. Like other intellectuals, he was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, for his role in creating one of China's first computers, Red Flag. But Wang secretly persisted in his goal of finding a way to streamline, through computer technology, the laborious task of printing in Chinese characters. When he finally received backing for research from Peking University in the 1980s, Wang hired students rather than established scientists, and gave them free reign to explore their curiosity. The spin-off of that research facility, Founder Co., grew to command more than 80% of China's publishing software market. That drive animates the young faces that dominate Haidian. In a shop selling computer parts, Shu Lei, a frenetic 23-year-old manager, sits at a card table inspecting the parts of a Compaq hard drive and laughing with friends and coworkers. A recent college graduate, Shu elected to work for a private business in Haidian rather than pursue a job in engineering, his chosen field of study. My salary is only so-so, he says, but I can learn a lot, and we have freedom. In another year, I'll have my own shop. The fascination that keeps young programmers banging away at their terminals is the same today as it was 30 years ago, when Bill Gates wrote his first computer program: the ability to make a machine do what you tell it. In today's unpredictable China it's easy to understand the appeal of a machine in which input and output are hardwired together. Cluttered shops like Shu's, which are filled with row after row of plugs, prongs and pins, double as consulting firms and even social clubs. Wandering amid the shelves is a collection of college-age programmers, many of whom run their own consulting businesses. In back, inevitably, you can find a souped-up personal computer with an oversized monitor running the latest Java or Shockwave program from Silicon Valley or Seattle. Nearby, usually on a black leatherette couch, hackers cluster, joke and--when a particularly terrific program crashes--cheer in appreciation of a noble but failed effort. It's not much different from what you'd find in Cupertino or Redmond--and that's the point. What's different is what you see when you look up from the computer screen, when you gaze outside the windows of the shops at the China that still quivers outside. Haidian's main street, Baishiqiao, is perennially under construction, growing from one lane to two, and now four. Trucks, jeeps and bicycles piled high with PCs zip by in the traffic. The technology revolution is changing China every day. Haidian is the center of that revolution--and the stuff of dreams for those who hope that technology will make for a better, longer and (as always in China) richer life. With reporting by Lori Reese