Novelist Ning Ken first saw Beijing’s Zhongguancun neighborhood in 1973 as a 14-year-old on a school trip to Summer Palace, the royal gardens were formerly looted by European armies during the Opium War. “At that time, when you passed the zoo, Beijing was just countryside and farmland,” he said, recalling the bus going northwest. Out the window and among the fields, Ning saw the campus of China’s most prestigious research institutions, the birthplace of China’s nuclear program and hydroelectric dams. They include the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Peking and Tsinghua Universities.
Today, that stretch is the heart of China’s tech industry, a bustling neighborhood lined with subway stops and glass towers that house Chinese and Western tech companies. The neighborhood’s transformation reflects the dramatic changes to China’s economy and culture over the past four decades. Tech companies that have grown out of Zhongguancun have expanded the boundaries of how businesses operate — often by staying one step ahead of regulators — and shaped China’s power abroad.
In the West, news about China’s tech industry often focuses on how it is restricted or controlled by the government. According to Ning, Zhongguancun’s innovators helped to “liberate” the Chinese people from the constraints of a fully state-run economy by charting a path for entrepreneurship when The country began to open up.
When the first technology companies were established in Zhongguancun in the early 1980s, every industry was state-owned and every aspect of a person’s life was up to them. danwei, or work unit, from where they live to whom they marry. When an entrepreneur named Wang Hongde left his research position at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1982 to start an IT company, bringing with him some colleagues, it “teared a rift in the old system,” Ning said.
Two generations later, Zhongguancun and the rest of China are almost unrecognizable. People could chase their fortunes and change careers in ways unimaginable in the early 1980s. Recent events have shown that change can still happen quickly, with pressures from bottom up, partly triggered by some Zhongguancun social media companies. At the end of November, people in provinces and cities across the country organize demonstrations against extreme zero-Covid measures. Restrictions after three years of pandemic seem permanent soon overthrownand China began to reopen.
Red light revolution
Ning, a native of Beijing, has published several popular novels in China, but his first book was translated into English. Zhong Guan Village: Stories from the Heart of China’s Silicon Valley, a non-fiction account of the history of Zhongguancun. It showcases the entrepreneurs and academics who built China’s tech industry, from the early days of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s to its recent boom, as Chinese tech companies like search giant Baidu and TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, grow from the vicinity.
Many of the people Ning introduces are not familiar names outside of China, but their stories illustrate how Zhongguancun’s entrepreneurs found clever ways to work within and around the system. Today, many are celebrated for their role in opening up China’s economy and boosting the country’s tech industry. “I wanted this book to not only show the path of reform and opening up over the past 40 years, but also show readers the spiritual wealth of these individuals,” he wrote to WIRED in Chinese. “I am a novelist. At the core of my interest has always been people, predicaments, development, emotions, psychology, and how society and history relate to those things.”