Joseph Tong, the brains behind one of China's most innovative business-to-business websites, learned everything the hard way. After a childhood in remote Heilongjiang, his father, who was stationed by the airforce in the remote northeastern province, sent him to school in Nanjing. Tong was 16, and the train that took him to Nanjing was the first he had ever seen.
He topped his class, got a degree in math and economics and then headed south in 1988 to freewheeling Shenzhen. Tong joined an electronics company but spent the first year carrying gas cylinders for the managers' private homes. He eventually got himself transferred to a software subsidiary and began to learn what technology could do. After four years in Shenzhen he won a place at the Wharton business school in the Philadelphia, and from there joined the consulting firm Booz Allen, working out of Hong Kong on information technology projects in China. But Tong, 35, is a self-starter by nature, and in 1997 he set up his own company in Shenzhen. At first he helped companies put up websites. But the more we did it, he says, the more we realized what they really needed was trade leads. In April 1999 he launched , a database of Chinese export manufacturers. Now overseas buyers can get specifications and quotes online from producers without having to go through middlemen in Hong Kong. Tong persuaded the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation to provide him with lists of exporters, and he arranged with Motorola to have his service sent out over pagers to factory managers who don't have computers or e-mail. Putting China's formidable export machine on the Internet could be worth a fortune. It's the best place in the world to make quick money, Tong says. Last month Citicorp, Softbank China Ventures and other partners announced an $11 million investment in Meetchina.com. Sure beats carrying gas tanks.