Books: China Dawn

David Sheff’s China Dawn: The Story of a Technology and Business Revolution may be a tad dated and a bit less jaded than other works on China’s Internet industry, but it posits some interesting questions that demand answers.
For a generation so near the actual event, the story of the birth and youth of the Internet commands a considerable share of our interest and bookshelves. Business writer David Scheff adds admirably to this literature by covering China’s Internet boom from a second-person point of view (not quite of the action, but not quite divorced from it either.) A friend and San Francisco area neighbor of youthful venture capitalist Bo Feng, Sheff became a fly-on-the-wall for the emergence and growth of companies like AsiaInfo, Sina.com, and China Netcom (the latter in its original incarnation) and the creation of Chengwei, a venture fund focused on China tech startups and run by Feng and partner Eric Li.

Sheff takes us on a journey that has its cast of characters bouncing back and forth between China and California so much that my biggest problem in reading this book is sympathetic jet lag. I’m sure Sheff was providing nothing more than narrative, and it may just be my sympathetic reaction to all of that trans-pacific travel (the book could have been subtitled “Sleepless in Shanghai”), but one cannot help but come away from the book with a sense of outrage about two things.

First, it is a sad statement about China that people like Feng and Li had to live on two sides of the world to do get capital into Chinese startups. In a country with trillions of dollars in savings and hundreds of billions in foreign reserves, two guys who wanted to start a venture capital fund had to go to San Francisco, New York, New Haven, and points between to pull together a comparatively paltry $60 million. It should have been possible to tap global financial markets from Shanghai, but the minimal importance institutional investors attach to China and the lack of decent financial infrastructure in China made necessary a process that is maddening in its wastefulness of time and money and in the personal toll it took on investors.

Second, one cannot help but come away from the book with a feeling that the powers-that-be in China have treated Edward Tian a bit shoddily. I don’t know Tian and never met him, so the outrage does not come from a sense that a good guy was shafted. But that someone like Tian with some pretty obvious business and management skills was sidelined when China Telecom and China Netcom were restructured makes it pretty clear that the decisions made about China’s carriers place far less an emphasis on business needs than on politics. Unfortunately, all of us who count on the evolution of Chinese telecommunications to enable our businesses will pay the price for this stupidity, along with the Chinese economy.

Finally, the books brings hom in a very visceral way that Bo, Li, and many of the entrepreneurs they backed (including Tian in his AsiaInfo days) didn’t just write business plans and wait for the dumb foreigners to dump cash on them. The creation of the Net in China was no automatic thing, and most of the characters we meet in the course of the book were living on almost no sleep, giving up any semblance of family life, keeping ridiculous schedules, and all the way praying that Wu Jichuan didn’t do something to bring the whole show down on their heads. As was the case in the U.S., there was no shortage of manifestly stupid businesses that got more cash and attention in China than they should have (eTang anyone?) But there were some very good and critical businesses and people that built and continue to build China’s infobahn who deserve to be separated out and helped in their efforts.

While Sheff’s wide-eyed, almost breathless prose about the hugeness of China and the market opportunity here seems a tad naïve to more jaded readers, it’s worth getting past the “two-billion-eyeball” rhetoric. Sheff spins a rich story, and while he’s pulling his punches with a cast of characters he’s come to call friends, he doesn’t pull them much.

The unique perspective of the fly-on-the wall that Sheff brings to this story ensures that many other important stories are not told. There was far more to the growth in the Internet in China than what Bo Feng and Eric Li dealt with. But for this book, that’s almost beside the point. His point of view may deny Sheff journalistic detachment, but it provides us with the closest thing to an “I was there” viewpoint available in the English language today.