China Foo Camp: On the Outside, Looking In

I thought I’d share a few reflections on our just completed China Foo Camp while they are still fresh. We organized the event in Beijing in conjunction with IBM and the Institute for the Future. Unlike our US Foo Camps, where we have a rich network of people we already know whom we want to introduce to each other and learn the latest from, here our objective was far more basic — we were hoping to meet interesting people who already deep into this market in a way that we are not. Instead of being at the center of the action, we’re outside, with our nose pressed to the glass, looking for a way in.

The opening evening event, Ignite Beijing, was held in a fabulous converted military factory in the 798 Arts District, an area that highlights as just about no other the amazing cultural renaissance that’s happening in China today. (You can wander for hours around small galleries tucked into otherwise empty factory buildings, a flower growing from the ruins of what was once a key part of China’s military-industrial complex.) However, despite the fabulous ambience of the space, the acoustics were bad, and it made it very difficult to hear the speakers. And as a result, the crowd continued networking, making it even more difficult to hear the speakers… The presentations suffered; the people we met were terrific.

More photos.

The next day, we picked up the thread in the normal Foo camp unconference format at the Landmark Hotel. Here are some of the observations that come first to mind:

  • As noted above, we’re on the outside looking in. Wanting to get to know people, rather than already knowing people and wanting to connect them (which is my normal role at Foo Camp) created a very different dynamic for me. I was soaking up people like a sponge (even though I didn’t get to everyone) but I realized how much joy I get out of being a connector, and here, I couldn’t play that role. At our US events, I’m always dragging one person over to meet another, and then watching the sparks fly. I’m hoping we will eventually get to know enough people here that we can do that here too.

  • While we met a fabulous group of people, that group was weighted towards expats (many of whom have been living here for years and are deeply connected, but still outsiders), folks from multinational companies with offices in China, Chinese who’ve been educated abroad, and Chinese bloggers like Isaac Mao who blog in English as well as Chinese. It was also weighted towards the internet industry and linux, while in the US Foo camps, we draw from these areas, but also hardware hacking, gaming, publishing, public policy, PC software, and the sciences. In a show of hands, about 1/3 of the attendees were programmers; 1/3 were entrepreneurs (with overlap between the two groups.) There was no one from any state owned enterprise — still a huge economic sector in China. The university segment was also lightly represented.

  • There are (reportedly) very large differences between the tech cultures in Shanghai and Beijing. Shanghai is very entrepreneurial, with money as a common language. Beijing is more complex, richer by most opinions, but more difficult. We might have felt more at home in Shanghai, but because of the complex interactions between government, academic institutions (which are centered in Beijing), the artistic revival here, and business, many felt that the future is here in Beijing. Of course, they also said that the rivalry between the two cities is like the rivalry between LA and New York.

  • While IBM, our local partner, had provided facilities for bi-directional simultaneous translation in two of the rooms, and for sequential translation in two others, no one even bothered to pick up the headsets (16 were picked up out of 100+ attendees). There were no talks offered in Mandarin, and apparently those who weren’t comfortable enough with English left partway through the day rather than resorting to translation. Jon Hancock of ShellShadow, one of the instigators of BarCamp Shanghai, said it was the same way at the first Bar Camp, but by the second, the Mandarin-speakers got more comfortable with the format, and began to participate. Ironically, one of the features of Foo Camp, the discouragement of prepared presentations, may have been a barrier to some who would have been more comfortable with the support of slides. Rebecca Mackinnon wrote a post summarizing the difficulties we faced because of the language barrier.

  • I got the sense that there really are two tech communities in China: the one we reached, and another one, that is more distinctly Chinese. Both are important. It’s not really that there’s this outer ring of westerners and Western-connected Chinese, with the “core” being the local industry. It’s more that there is a Western-facing industry, and an indigenous one that is growing up in parallel.

  • There really was some good two way exchange, but it seemed to be one way at a time. For example, there was a session led by Frank Yu about the China gaming market that I found fascinating, because I learned a lot about the structure of the market, the types of games played, the business models, and so on. But that would have been old hat to any Chinese gamer. Meanwhile, though, Deb Fallows, who, with her husband James Fallows has been living in China for the last year and a half, reported on a session she attended in which a western speaker (whose name she didn’t remember) was talking about American marketing and business strategy, which elicited many questions from the Chinese members of the audience. In short, the two worlds are sufficiently far apart that many of the conversations that deeply interest people from one side are of less interest to the other. We didn’t have the kind of sessions I’ve come to expect at Foo Camps in the US and Europe, where someone shows something that just blows my mind…

    There’s an interesting side point here: discussions that feel really stimulating are ones where there is enough common ground for information to flow both ways. However, conversations where information flows mainly in one direction may also be extremely valuable, especially if they provide a foundation for later two way conversation. I’m hopeful that when we come back next year, we’ll see more true collaboration, both because we’ve figured out how better to handle the language problem, and because we can now craft a program that looks for a combination of sessions that are of interest of one side or the other (Westerners looking to learn about China or Chinese looking to learn about the West), and those that find common ground.

Moving away from Foo Camp itself, a few comments about Beijing and China in general.

As already noted, there’s a sense that a renaissance is going on here. I’m thinking of Horatio Alger’s dictum: “Go west, young man.” We reached the end of Alger’s directions in California. China is now true west from there. Go west, young man, go west. What happens in China over the next decade is going to shape the history of the world.

On the down side, the pollution here in Beijing is unbelievable. We had one good day, but most of the time, the smog has been so thick that you can’t see buildings more than a half mile or so away. The sun is like a burned hole in a blanket. Open a window at night and you think you’ve opened directly onto the outflow from a chimney. (Jim Fallows has some great pictures of the Beijing smog. It’s been like that every day.)

That raises a specter of a future we don’t like to consider. The environmental impacts of China’s growth are not sustainable. We need to think about something like a carbon tax on products imported from China. America’s addiction to cheap goods, and China’s race to catch up to Western standards of living, is putting terrible impacts “off the balance sheet.” One day, there will be hell to pay, and the party will be over. (When will we learn? “Off the balance sheet” seems to be a universal recipe for disaster, from subprime to the environment. Figuring out your true costs is essential if you want to survive long term.)

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