The Future of Computing in China: Stories that Bind

The future of computing in China is a frequent topic in the tech community.

Most recently, NY Times published an article by John Markoff and David Barboza that discusses a near future where China's computing industry could close in on the US. The authors provided many examples, such as China's successful super computing industry and the number of programmers coming out of universities and being sent abroad.

James Landay wrote a response that countered Markoff's and Barboza's optimism. Landay explained that while China has made great strides reforming its academic system to produce top programmers, there are systematic issues (such as power structure within universities, the education system, and patent incentives) that prevent creativity among programmers from being rewarded. 

I'd like to extend upon Landay's comment on the cultural barriers to China's computing industry and offer my ideas of the primary challenges for the future of computing in China.

The three things holding China's computing industry from creating disruptive innovation is the 1.) lack of trust between individuals, groups, and institutions, 2.) lack of organizations that foster creativity and community, and 3.) lack of common myth among technologists, engineers, and programmers.

1. Trust matters

China's computing industry lacks trust between individuals and institutions. Both articles from Landay and Markoff and Barboza touch upon trust issues around patent protection. But when I talk about trust, I am referring to two types of trust, 1.) trust between individuals that leads (or doesn't) to collaborations, and 2.) social trust between individuals and institutions.

Markoff's and Barboza's article pointed to collaborations between universities as indicators of China's growing computer industry. But these collaborations are still far and few between and more importantly, they operate independently from each other. Industrial social structures matter in how industries form, as demonstrated by AnnaLee Saxenian's research on the emergence of Silicon Valley in California. Her analysis revealed that tech companies in Boston, Massachusetts Route 128 operated in a decentralized and independent fashion, while companies in California's Silicon Valley adopted a more decentralized but cooperative system. She argued that Silicon Valley was able to generate more innovation because its unique industrial structure encouraged collaboration between companies.

Trust is an essential factor for collaboration. The missing ingredient in Route 128 wasn't investment or human capital, it was trust. Without the underlying social bond of trust, companies were largely isolated from each other, which prevented collaboration. Lack of collaboration hindered healthy levels of sharing and competition.

The Chinese tech industry is set up more like Route 128 than Silicon Valley. There are pockets of innovation in China, but the innovators are not networked, nor are they collaborating. A common question that Chinese people ask is why China does not have a Steve Jobs. Whenever I hear this question, I ask myself, could Steve Jobs have created Apple in Route 128, instead of Silicon Valley? I'll leave that question for the experts to ponder.

Another type of trust that is missing is social trust of institutions. Aside from the major educational barriers that Landay pointed out and the legal intellectual property barriers that Markoff and Barboza highlighted, the general distrust in bureaucratic institutions is holding back the Chinese computing industry. In a country were information is explicitly filtered and monitored, how can people develop trust in large-scale computing systems? Sure, China has gotten this far by creating the fastest super-computers (at one point). But super-computing does not require high levels of trust, whereas cloud-computing does.

Cloud-computing is user-centric. One of the most important points in Landay's article is that cloud-computing is where innovations matter the most:

"people seem to see much more important innovation going on in the cloud computing clusters that literally combine thousands of commercial processors together in standard racks connected with traditional networks in huge data centers around the world. This is the technology that powers Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and the many other web computing giants of the world and is then resold inexpensively to every little web site or mobile phone application that needs to do computing in the cloud. This type of architecture supports a far wider range of applications than supercomputing."

If cloud-computing is a better indicator of where the Chinese computing industry is at, then it would appear from the recent burst of cloud-computing projects in China that its computing industry is doing quite well. Jin Ge reports on China Bubble Watch:

"In April 2011, the government of Chongqing became the first to announce its plan to invest 40 billion yuan on a cloud computing center that will be the largest in Asia. The plan is called “Yun Duan” (Top of Cloud). Then Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou all followed suit. Shanghai plans to build a “Asia Pacific Cloud Computing Center”,  its plan is called “Yun Hai” (Ocean of Cloud), Beijing has a plan called “Xiang Yun” (Cloud of Blessing), Shenzhen has a plan called “Kun Yun” (Cloud of Flying Fish), Guangzhou has a plan called “Tian Yun” (Cloud of Sky), Ningbo has “Xing Yun” (Galaxy Cloud), Wuxi has “Yun Gu” (Cloud Valley), Hangzhou has “Yun Chao Shi” (Cloud Supermarket) ……

According to a report from China High Tech Herald, even poor cities like Lanzhou and Langfang joined the “cloud making carnival”. Langfang, a third tier city in Hebei province  announced its plan for a cloud storage center that is at least two times the size of the largest existing cloud storage center in the world, which is in Chicago."

But in China, anything that happens this quickly is suspect. Ge Jin reveals that cloud-computing is part of larger real-estate schemes.

"The first thing people should know about cloud computing in china is that it is again driven by state capitalism. Once the technocratic officials of China become aware of the concept of cloud computing, they immediately see the potential of applying their magic formula of “fixed asset investment+government subsidy+cheap loan” on it, because after all cloud computing does involve some large physical infrastructure."

Chinese efforts at cloud-computing are largely government subsidized projects built on shady relationships where it is not clear where money is coming from and where it is going. 

Jin Ge's article reveals the fundamental problem with cloud-computing in China - there is little trust in it. A common response from Chinese internet users is that they trust foreign internet companies more than Chinese internet companies with their information. Most users tell me that they don't trust putting their information up in the Chinese clouds because there is no guarantee that the company will be around next year. In addition, distrust of the government is also a common response. Having become accustomed to explicit information filtering from the largest cyber police force in the world, users have low trust in putting their information up in the clouds, thus another barrier to cloud-computing.

2. Organizational hubs of creativity matter.

China needs organizations that will foster creativity across software, hardware, and social boundaries.

Markoff and Barboza pointed to the rise of collaborations between institutions in China as indicators of China's burgeoning computer industry. I would be cautious of interpreting these indicators as measures of creativity, which is a critical element of disruptive innovation.

In Michele Hoyman's and Christopher Faricy's research, "It Takes a Village: A Test of the Creative Class, Social Capital and Human Capital Theories," they counter Richard Florida's work by arguing that creativity and economic growth can be mutually exclusive. Their work tells us that China can continue to experience great economic growth and computing progress without becoming a hub of creativity. So contrary to what Florida argues, creativity and economic development are not always positively correlated.

This is not to say that I don't see bubbles of amazing creativity in China. One only has to look to Silvia Lindtner's research on co-working and collaborative spaces like Xindanwei and Xinchejian for proof that China is not lacking in creative minds. But will these communities of creativity reach the tech industry at large? Will Chinese companies lead in creating shared value (Kevin Lee has a great post about this topic)? My experience so far tells me that in the Chinese computing industry, the answer is no, at least for now.

In research that I conducted (with Jofish Kaye) on hacker spaces in the Bay Area, I witnessed great fluidity between various creative spaces. People who worked at facebook could be found hacking away at Hacker Dojo or people who worked at a start-up would teach a class at Noisebridge. So far, I don't see any of that happening in China's co-working spaces. Even those these spaces are quite new, it's hard to imagine engineers at Tencent QQ taking time out of their grueling schedule to build an arduino board for fun. I see lots of Chinese artists and designers, and international techies at these new co-working spaces, but the missing group are the computer programmers from industry and academia.

I don't want to underestimate the importance of these new co-working communities, but a few of these sites scattered throughout the country is not enough for massive cultural change. What China needs is an organization that will cut through horizontal and vertical layers of bureaucracy, regional differences, software and hardware industries, and institutions, to bring together people to share.

The US has organizations whose sole mission is to build up the community between techies (the social science kind and programming kind) across industry and academia. Conferences organized by O'Reilly from Web 2.0 to Foo Camp bring together thousands of people in the computer industry to network, share, and play. Existing organizations are hardware and service specific. For example, organizations such as China Great Wall Club plays an important role in bringing together mobile internet service providers, but their audience does not expand beyond mobile, at least for now. And there are a few others organizations here and there, but they don't meet enough and often care more about membership fees than community development. China needs an organization, like O'Reilly, that will bring together academics, researchers, programmers, social scientists, hackers, artists, designers, and writers. Global research centers proposed by Landay would be a start.

3. Stories matter.

For China to become a disruptive innovator in computing, it needs a common myth to unifiy players from different social backgrounds. The lack of a common story prevents the emergence of a cohesive computing culture in China.

In Morgan Ames's research on One Lap Per Child, she looks at the kind of stories that technologists and programmers tell about themselves and how these stories are designed into technologies. She argues that the largely male culture of computer programming draws upon a mythologized childhood of independence from adults and freedom to explore computers. In their stories, programmers tend to ignore all the social and demographic factors that makes their story possible, such as being Caucasian, male, middle- to upper class, and having parents who encouraged them to use the computers, and going to schools that had access to computers. Regardless of how accurate these "pull yourself up by your own bootstrap" narratives are, it is a common one that binds computer programmers together.[2] Narratives can be powerful because they allow people to establish trust across time, social distance, and space. So what kinds of stories are circulating among Chinese programmers? I have yet to be able to identity a strong one yet.

Though I would like to point out an interesting story that comes from the mobile industry, the story of shanzai. What started out as a response from a few rogue mobile hardware producers in Southern China who wanted to avoid paying the government taxes on handset producers, has now spawned a whole industry of shanzai products that goes beyond the original definition of being cheap copies of existing products. Shanzai mobile makers did what Nokia, HTC, Samsung, and Motorola could not do - they met the user needs of millions of new cell[phone users (more on this topic from me). By working outside of the dominant infrastructure of mobile producers, shanzai makers went wild with producing mobile phones with new features that were relevant for low-end users. Shanzai mobiles has give the low-end market, that was once dominated by Nokia, a greater number of choices in mobiles at a lower cost. Shanzai is still in the process of moving beyond the perception of being a copy culture to a bottom-up innovation culture, so it is not a story that is embraced by the programming community at large right now.

All stories need a good enemy. For shanzai makers in China, it was the government that levied oppressive taxes. For hackers in the West, is was the education system that tried to prevent them from exploring self-directed learning. So who are the bad guys in the eyes of Chinese programmers?


Although I have named several barriers to China's computing industry, trust, creativity, and stories, I don't think that the Chinese computing industry will not be successful if it doesn't achieve all these factors, but whether it will be a Route 128 or Silicon Valley is still to be seen. Creativity and economic growth are not necessarily correlated.

Like Landay and many others, I'm not so optimistic about the actual system changing anytime soon. But here's the thing, I don't expect it to. Because systems take lots of time to change, and the bigger they are, the more change resistant they are. For example, compulsory public education in the US began in the early 1900s. In China, it only began in 1986. The US has had over 100 years to experiment with liberal education. China has only had a litte more than 20 years, and they have a lot more people.

My own research so far tells me that tech innovation in China will not model the West. For example, in the West, following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities and companies arrange mutually beneficial partnerships to facilitate the ease of IP transfer. This does not have to be a model elsewhere. Research from David Mowery and Bhaven Sampat (The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and University-Industry Technology Transfer: A Model for Other OECD Governments) cautions us from extending the US model of university-corporate partnerships globally because the success of the Bayh-Dole Act is heavily dependent on the history of education and tech industry in the US. And a recent paper from Paul M. Swamidass and Venubabu Vulasa, Why university inventions rarely produce income? Bottlenecks in university technology transfer, questions whether univeristy research is even producing marketable innovations. Both these studies bring up important points, innovation will look different in different contexts. [3]

The future of computing lies in individuals and groups who will collaborate across social and industry boundaries, and know  how to handle the unique constraints of technology usage in China as welcomed challenges. And this is why Lindtner's work on XindanWei and Xinchejian is so fascinating, because her research suggests that innovation in China may not come from the computer industry as we know it, it may come from these loose forms of transnational Chinese who breathe design, art, and tech. And my research on non-elite users and shanzai culture suggests that disruptions from the bottom up can contribute to the innovations in the field at large. Both of our research point to different dynamics of innovation than seen in the West.

In the meantime, we need more coverage of the Chinese tech scene from writers like Markoff and Barboza who avoid Western-centrism and more writing from experts like James Landay who can provide a nuanced insiders perspective. It's an exciting time to be a witness to how processes of trust building, creative development, and storytelling are being worked through in China as its economy is challenging the existing global order.

In Neil Stephenson's cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash, he writes that in an era of American economic decline where inflation is high and inequality is great,

"There's only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), and high-speed pizza delivery”

According to the prophet of the tech industry, despite economic decline in America, it will continue to provide good stories, software, and service.


UPDATE Dec. 16, 2011: James Fallow refers to this article in What's Up in China: Hint, It's Not War With the U.S., The Atlantic


[1] This is not to say that users' distrust will lead to more distrust in Chinese cloud-computing. Carol Heimer's research shows that strategies of distrust are not iterative, rather they can lead to the necessary groundwork for establishing trust.  For example, as suspect as US and Europeans are of companies' handling of individual's private data, it is this very suspicion that creates a healthy level of check and balances between companies and individuals.

[2] This mythologized childhood story of computer programming is shared by so many male techies that is often works in exclusionary ways, such as alienating females and minority programmers who do not share a similar childhood, as evidenced by research on gender biases in computing from Jane Margolis and Allen Fisher.

[3] Landay explained that the field of Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp) as lacking in Chinese scholars. But Ubicomp is not a field that the industry looks to for innovation. Students and researchers of Ubicomp and other similar fields are often times more concerned with producing papers than creating innovative contributions that will leave the lab.