My trip to China was very good in a sense that I got a better and clear idea of what they really need and what I can be of best help. On the other hand, I also feel that there is a big gap between what DV wants to offer and what people need in China.
My original project idea was to provide low cost WiFi connectivity and VoIP to rural entrepreneurs to help them develop their local business. After talking to various people including family and friends, formal colleagues, government officials, taxi drivers, small business owners, recently laid-off urban workers, executives in telecoms, university professors, economist and researchers, here is some feedback:
1) Connectivity isn’t that big an issue. Chinese telecoms have rolled out or are in the process of rolling out wired and wireless telecommunication infrastructures, even in the most remote areas. For example, a small telecommunications equipment company based in Palo Alto has deployed its wireless access points to 16 provinces including most remote province Xinjiang.
2) Telecommunication sector is still under monopoly with a few players such as China Telecom, China Netcom, China Mobile, China Unicom. However, there are hundreds and thousands of illegal underground businesses doing VoIP and Voice over WLAN in urban and rural areas. This is mostly done through special connection with key government officials or simply by bribery. This is part of the nature of Chinese business environment.
3) There are very few NGOs in China. Chinese government assumes all the responsibility of social and economic development activities. It’s very critical to have a good relationship with Chinese government to get almost anything done. This is one of the reasons that micro-credit project was not successful in China as it is elsewhere. The pilot project of micro-credit was introduced to China a few years ago. Since it focused on working with NGOs, it didn’t get any support from the government in terms of resources and implementation; therefore, it didn’t get anywhere.
4) Technology is not something that people in poor rural areas need or care about. There are much more urgent issues – such as clean water, access to electricity, nutrition etc. – needed to be addressed before they can even think about technology or use technology-based solutions. They said very plain to me: “we don’t need you – a Stanford Digital Vision Fellow – to go to remote villages to help people with no education to use computers, it’s a complete waste.” When I proposed e-learning solution to professors at Peking University for distance training, they are not even interested and think it’s a very ineffective way to provide training.
5) Coming from a “socialist society,” China is now relentlessly on its way to pursue market economy and capitalism because they realized the “socialism” had made them poor and behind. Therefore, talking about a solution to help the poor and promote social welfare appears to be very unpopular. They think the best way I can help them is to leverage the Stanford and Silicon Valley resources to help small businesses to develop their entrepreneurial and business skills, provide technology insights and access to western capital.
All in all, I feel people from both sides have very different expectations for each other. I hope I can be a good “bridge” to bridge these differences. One characteristic of Chinese way of thinking is that they are very strategic and want to get the most of things, they wouldn’t settle for less and they absolutely want the best of the best. In addition, there are many subtle cultural issues that I understand but it’s hard for me to explain. For example, one person said, Chinese not only “wu shi”, but also “wu xu”. That means Chinese not only focus on practical things – wu shi, in the mean time, they are also extremely status and prestige conscious – wu xu, much more so than people in this country. Peasant parents would endure all the hardships and use up all their savings to send their son to Harvard if they could. This kind of mentality partly explains the question of why small businesses in China would want management knowledge from Stanford.