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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  • http://www.bippr.com Greg Tallent

    Tim, thanks very much for that. Here’s a talk from TED by John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/128, that says we’re not doing enough to slow down the impact of climate change. We should get more of the best minds in the world – often to be found working in web 2/3 – in on this problem. Greg

    http://www.HelpWorldClimate.com

  • Alex Tolley

    Interesting comment about the “sparks flowing” only when there is enough information overlap between the correspondents. Similarly, whilst the conversation can be very intense between people with perfect overlap, I would guess the creation of new ideas and information is also going to be low. Finding that optimum is hard. I suspect it is analagous to the network criticality point, there is some zone of overlap that maximizes the “takeoff” of new ideas based on the interaction.

    Hmm, another web 2.0 idea…

  • http://hi.baidu.com/edm%5Fcn G. Weng

    Really like:

    “I was soaking up people like a sponge “

    “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.

  • Srinagesh Eranki

    Forums like these harness synergies between the best entrepreneurial energies of the US and China.

    The next decade is going to be a blockbuster with countries like China, India (being of Indian origin myself) and others vying with the US for the entrepreneurial spoils!

  • http://www.stubbleblog.com Tony Stubblebine

    I got a birds-eye view of the pollution in Beijing while flying to Chengdu. For an hour all you could see from the plane was a thick brown smog.

    Then we landed in Chengdu and the city looked just like your Beijing pictures. It was bad enough that I asked a local if he’d ever seen stars. He had, but not that month.

  • http://weblogs.macromedia.com/jd John Dowdell

    Thanks for the write-up, Tim… good read, I’ve bookmarked it.

    The “westward migration” thing is a Tim Leary riff, right?

    Beijing air pollution seems to vary by the day… city is surrounded by mountains, a basin… lots of days in the past few weeks have had gorgeous weather. Next week the coal stacks for home heating fire up, though.

    Feedback loops work better when direct, rather than indirect… a US consumption tax on all goods passing through China may not work as well as, say, routing car exhaust and horns through the passenger compartment, rather than having them point out at the world. Semi-facetious, but you get the point.

    Did you get out of the guided situation, get a chance to walk around and explore town yourself…?

    jd

  • Werner Sombart

    Tim, Economists have a good alternative to your “off balance sheet” metaphor. If I recall correctly, one O’Reilly conference featured a theme of positive externalities of emerging technologies. Pollution in Beijing is a superb example of a negative externality of unregulated growth.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Josh –

    I was never in a guided situation. Just wandering around whenever outside the conference.

    FWIW, the previous time I was in Beijing, two years ago for the Intel Capital conference, the weather was gorgeous. That was in the summer, though.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley

    “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.”

    Thank you for writing this. Too many in the tech sector turn a blind eye to the consequences of our current business relationships with China.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    John,

    I had remembered “Go west, young man” was the title of a book by Horatio Alger, the 19th century boy’s book author who told tales of boys “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

    But doing a bit of research after reading your comment, I see that it’s commonly attributed to Horace Greeley, who used the phrase in an 1865 newspaper editorial. But according to http://www.gold-eagle.com/editorials_04/chuhran020204.html the line was actually first authored in an 1851 newspaper editorial by John B.L. Soule, as “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”

    Of course, since Alger was a hack, he could well have stolen the phrase for a title, justifying my memory. (Even though I collect old books, I didn’t buy that one, since if you’ve read one Horatio Alger story, you’ve read them all. And one is enough.)

    If Tim Leary used it too, I’m not aware of it.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Coincidentally, Evan Williams just posted a piece entitled “Going west, as a young man” describing leaving Nebraska for the gold fields of the internet in 1997.

    http://evhead.com/2007/11/where-should-you-be.asp

  • http://www.insideview.ie Bernie Goldbach

    Floating a trial balloon about imposing a sustainability tax on products manufactured in China will stoke up old chatter about imposing sanctions on nations based on their internal policies. While I agree sustainable production methods offer the only way forward, it’s hard to see how a non-Kyoto country like the US can have any credibility in the matter of reducing man’s carbon footprint.

  • http://alexdong.haokanbu.com/ Alex Dong

    More than 3,000 cars are registered in Beijing everyday. :-) End of autumn is supposed to be the best season in the whole year. Last year, the local government published a “# of blue sky days in a year”. This year, it’s totally canceled.

    Talking about “two china”, It’s really interesting to see you pointing this out. Since I’m a Chinese entrepreneur who never lives in US longer than one month, I might contribute a bit.

    The reason that you haven’t seen the other side of China isn’t because the people are not there, but because you couldn’t notice/communicate with them. By “couldn’t”, I’m not talking about language barrier, but “interests”. That is, they don’t have anything ‘hi-tech’ enough that’ll interest you.

    Remember by the end of it, the four of us sit on the ground to go through Jonathan’s demo, the other guy was the founder of XiaoNei.com, which is China’s FaceBook. I’ve spent some wonderful time with him in understanding what he has learned in promoting an internet website in China (without doing sex/scandal eye ball catching). It’s true that XiaoNei.com has ‘shamelessly’ used FaceBook’s css without even bothering to modify it, but they do have a fascinating ‘startup war story’.

    Hope this helps and see you in 2008.

  • DouglasW

    Your insight is really impressive,Tim.The event was a great start anyway.I believe China Foo next time could become more 2.0 and get involved more geeks from the other tech communities in China that is more distinctly Chinese.

  • http://www.carbontax.org Dan

    Bernie is correct that the U.S. has little credibility on climate change issues, but that shouldn’t interfere with China’s consideration of a carbon tax. Just as the United States is beginning to consider a carbon tax, see http://www.carbontax.org, China could do the same. Carbon tax revenues could be recycled within China, either returned to individuals in lump sum payments or offsetting tax deductions, used to fund energy efficiency or renewable energy, or for such other purposes as the Chinese governments determines to be appropriate.

  • http://blogs.msdn.com/acid49/default.aspx frank

    I think my friend Paul had a great comment about that Go West Young Man feel of China when he had dinner with a few ex-MS Game Developers and myself living and working in Beijing.

    http://www.chinavortex.com/2007/09/developing-games-and-living-the-american-dream-in-china/

    “America used to be a much more entrepreneurial country, now it is overly regulated, overly expensive, overly specialized, overly structured and overly corporate. In order to be competitive again, the entire society and culture will have to make major adjustments. The road will not be a smooth one.

    That is why the smart entrepreneurs, like Gage, start their businesses in China.

    In this new globalized world, China has become what America used to be”

  • http://www.vantug.com Graham Jones

    I worked in central China (about 600 miles west of Shanghai) in the boonies for about a year in the mid 90′s. Living conditions weren’t quite like Beijing or Shanghai! Pollution in Shanghai was bad then because of the industry but not particularly noticeable in Beijing. 2 years ago I went back for a vacation with my wife and although we had fabulous weather in Beijing (mid October) I was told how bad it had become. Shanghai is still worse. All of the major cities are bad. Clearly the number of people who die in China from pollution related illness is way understated by the government, not unusual in China!

  • http://www.teratech.com Michael Smith

    Your post on Chinese fast growth and pollution make me think of the book “Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update” which I just got. If you haven’t seen it it is an analysis and computer models of where our current world is going with all the growth and pollution and the effectiveness (or not in most cases) of actions we might take to prevent an economic, human and ecological crisis in the next 30 years.

    I remember reading the original book edition in 1972 and there are some stories on what we have done right (eg CFC and ozone layer) and others that are not so good (global warming).

  • Lee McKusick

    From Fonts and Encodings (a recent O’Reilly release) I get the feeling that the various Chineese languages do not fit very well into the Unicode framework.

    The language gap you experienced may be equally true down at the level of fonts and encoding. What operating system would Chineese programmers write an encodings redesign in?

    How about, go back to China (soon), take a fluent partner and see who you meet over small lunch meetings with computer science students and teachers.

  • AussieWebmaster

    The Asian market has so much potential… developing the networking of skilled people in the area (both in a local and skill set sense) is very important.

  • http://www.factoryfast.com.au online shopping

    The differences in marketing and market between China and America really is huge : and I, myself, don’t know if I really like each one in terms of the way both of the cultures work and operate. The thing is you have to understand the culture to know how to market it : and this is where our bias can step in. However, learning about cultures is fun and very interesting and one of those things that get me really enthused.

  • http://www.portraitkingdom.com/painting-from-photos.html painting from photos

    This is probably the reason why China has a very diverse and rich culture. Each province has its unique set of traditions. In a way, this is beneficial to the country as long as everybody would still unite despite of the differences.