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30 years

Wang Zhidong: Millionaire mirror of a hi-tech China

by Joelle Garrus*

Wang Zhidong, a Chinese millionaire and serial entrepreneur, embodies the hi-tech and innovative side of China — areas that he embarked on just as the nation launched its economic reforms.
In the middle of the 1980s, the 41-year-old's native Guangdong province in the south of China had been chosen as the launch-pad for the reforms ratified by the Communist Party in 1978.
It became China's centre of manufacturing and trade with the outside world, propelling the country into 30 years of spectacular growth.
But Wang, a teenager at the time, was looking even further into the future.
In 1984, when he was 17, he started studying the then brand-new subjects of electronics and computer science in Beijing — areas that fascinated him.
Twenty-four years later, the Hurun list of the 1,000 richest people in China has credited the man who helped create the country's popular infotainment web portal sina.com with a fortune of 190 million dollars.
Sitting in the cramped office of his latest venture — the software development company Dianji Technologies — Wang, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved polo shirt, does not look like the archetypal golden boy.
Far from the extravagance displayed by some of his fellow millionaires in China, this father of eight-year-old twins professes a love for work and family life rather than luxury and sports cars.
However, he clearly takes pleasure in talking about a career path that has gone hand-in-hand with China's march towards modernity.
"I created my first businesses without (big) investments or guarantees," he said.
"At the time, one was not a shareholder, the law did not rule on who owned the business. If you left, you just didn't own it anymore."
After graduating from Peking University, he started as a salesman in an electronics company.
A customer told him about a problem he had — adapting two different, apparently incompatible, IT systems on the same computer, including one developed by Peking University's Founder firm.
In his spare time, Wang studied the problem and resolved it. His customer subsequently rushed to tell Founder, which had earlier deemed the task to be impossible.
A few months later, when Founder was asked a similar question, it turned to Wang to resolve the problem.
Shortly after, Wang, then 22, launched into a new challenge of his own volition — to translate Windows, Microsoft's flagship computer operating system, into Chinese.
At the time, China was not a market for the US multinational, and computer users only had access to Windows in English.
So "a kind of game" began, he said.
"If I succeeded, good. If I failed, nobody would think I was stupid as no one had succeeded before me," he said.
After two months, Wang completed a first Chinese version of Windows, then translated the next version of the operating system. "I was working at home, quickly — I'm a bit of a workaholic," he said.
In 1990, he published a third Chinese version of Windows that was technologically more advanced than the others, with "very new methods."
Founder was initially uninterested, but later backed him to present his work at the first Microsoft congress in China in 1991. "I had the feeling I had crossed a threshold," he said.
By the age of 23, Wang had gained industry-wide recognition and was receiving job offers from abroad.
"I admired Silicon Valley, stories of business start-ups, like (the story of Apple co-founder) Steve Jobs," he said.
So he co-founded a software company, then a second, and finally discovered the Internet on a trip to the United States in 1995.
"It was the first time that I'd ever used the Internet, and I became hooked."
This new-found passion first inspired Wang to generate a simple web forum for the tens of thousands of Chinese people using the Internet at the time.
Then he created the famous sina.com web portal in 1999 with Taiwanese partners who lived in the United States, and who had already launched a small website called sina.net.
The deal was sealed in less than a month, and hailed as a success for Sino-Taiwanese ties.
Sina.com immediately gained the lion's share of Chinese Internet space, and shortly afterwards, it was floated on the New York-based Nasdaq stock market.
Wang remained head of sina.com for two years, but stepped down following disagreements with the board on development strategies.
He said he was optimistic about his latest venture Dianji Technologies, which has been around for seven years and employs more than 100 people.
"There will be more and more need for services for the Internet, which will become indispensable, like electricity," he said.

    

*AFP

Migrants, unsung heroes of China’s reform, demand their share

by Peter Harmsen*

Cheng Yuan gets up at 6:00 am and goes to sleep 12 hours later in his crammed dormitory, too exhausted to watch any TV after a day on his Beijing building site — and he considers himself lucky.
In a good month, the 35-year-old can make 3,000 yuan, more than twice the amount he could hope for at home in rural Henan province, hundreds of kilometres away.
But the emotional cost is huge — he gets to see his teenage son twice a year at most.
"He misses his dad, that goes without saying. But I've got no other choice," said Cheng, who has been a construction worker for his entire adult life, and would not know what else to do.
There are 120 million Chinese like Cheng, who have left unemployment and poverty in the countryside in search of better lives in the bustling cities.
They are the unsung heroes of the nation's reform era, assuming all the jobs that city dwellers shun as too dirty or too dangerous, but an increasing number of them are now demanding to be heard.
"It's fair to say that the migrant workers have been the engine that's been driving China's whole growth rate," said Russell Smyth, an economist with Australia's Monash University, who specialises in China's migrant workers.
"The urban population that's so much better off now than they were 30 years ago probably wouldn't be as well off if it wasn't for the efforts of the migrant workers."
For more than two decades after reform kicked off in China, the migrants were too weak to get anything approaching a fair share of the wealth that fast economic growth had brought to the country.
But over the past four years they have been able to push up their salaries — in some cases by as much as 80 percent — as severe labour shortages along the industrialised east coast have suddenly made them more valuable.
The cities have been expanding fast, requiring ever-larger amounts of manpower, making it harder to fill the sweatshops and construction sites where the nation's economic future was being forged.
"In the past, migrant workers did not have many options as there was almost an infinite supply of labour," said Du Yang, a Beijing-based labour economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the top government think tank.
"At least now they can vote with their feet and change jobs if they are not happy," he said.
To some extent the migrants can also thank the current government under President Hu Jintao, which has made it a priority to boost the countryside, enabling large numbers of migrants to find jobs at home.
Recent massive public spending on the rural areas has helped lift growth in the countryside, opening up new employment opportunities there.
But as China prepares for one of the worst economic crises in the post-reform period — the World Bank warns of growth at a 19-year low in 2009 — they may again see their advantages eroded.
"The slowdown in the world economy means migrants are not in the same bargaining position," said Smyth.
If that is the case, they will have to rely on government policies to improve their lot.
The central government has introduced new measures to benefit the migrants, including the right to life-long employment after 10 years with the same company.
"The problem is that generally those regulations are not enforced. I think it's very difficult for the central government to do a lot beyond that," said Smyth.
Ultimately, however, time is on the side of the migrants, as manpower shortages are likely to become worse with weakening population growth.
"After all, the economic crisis is a short-term factor while the labour shortage is the result of long-term factors," said Du of the Beijing think tank.
"China's labour market may see some fluctuations in the short term but the labour shortage is here to stay for the long term."

    
*AFP

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