He’s Got Guanxi!
By David Sheff
Bo Feng, facing three men around a cuneiform dining table at Beijing’s Zhiweiguan Restaurant, lifts a tulip glass of rice wine spiked with snake venom. Feng has a fresh buzz haircut, titanium-framed glasses, and an improbable Nike ensemble. His three guests, who wear short-sleeved shirts, neckties, and brown or khaki pants, raise their glasses too. In front of them, alongside unholstered Nokias, sit plates of crispy snake, lobster sashimi, and baked tortoise, as well as cups of green tea. A feast fit for heads of state – or a venture capitalist. Feng toasts and drains the venomous elixir.
A short time ago, this particular meeting would have been inconceivable – if not unlawful. Feng, the venture capitalist and at 29 the youngest at the table, is one of the first VCs in China – and arguably the hottest. As head of the Beijing office of ChinaVest, one of the oldest VC funds in China, he was charged with adding software and Internet companies to ChinaVest’s portfolio. He did so well that Chinese government regulatory agencies and the mayor of Shanghai solicited him to educate them about venture capital. What’s more, he left ChinaVest late last year to cofound Robertson, Feng Technology Associates, where he plans to manage his own fund. Representatives of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and other American investment banks have approached Chinese start-ups with more money, says Liu Yan, an associate of Feng’s at ChinaVest, “but the entrepreneurs are not impressed. Bo impresses them. He can speak to them.”
And the reason he can speak to them is telling. Feng, who in keeping with his trans-Pacific lifestyle places his surname last, sits at the apogee of the most transfiguring movement in China. Businesspeople born at the time of the Cultural Revolution, raised on Mao, and scattered by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and then sobered and politicized by Tiananmen Square, are repatriating and founding businesses. Feng, you might say, is a Chinese capitalist with Western characteristics. Says veteran high tech investment banker Sandy Robertson, Feng’s business partner, “The West is preoccupied with the country’s aged leaders, but it’s Bo – Bo and his crowd – who are creating China’s future.”
After dinner, Feng and his guests regroup at the 16th-floor bar of the fashionable Swissôtel, where Feng lives and works when he’s in Beijing. Two of the men at the meeting run AsiaInfo, a company that Feng helped finance. CEO Edward Tian and COO Liu Yadong sit opposite Kong Hongjia, who runs a relatively small firm that peddles cell phone billing software. Kong’s company, DeKang, leads its field but faces growing competition from home and abroad, which is partly why he’s after a deal with AsiaInfo.
Camels and Marlboros are sucked in over more green tea. Feng writes notes on a tiny pad, scribbling answers to his long list of questions. When the conversation wraps at two in the morning, a deal is close, but not closed. Feng says good night to the AsiaInfo chiefs and agrees to meet Kong later in the week.
Left alone at the cocktail table, he catches up on phone calls to California, where it is morning. He sleeps for four hours, rises for a breakfast of soupy rice congee, and jumps into a charcoal Mercedes. The car takes him past a Tibetan Lama temple (the home of Maitreye, the “Buddha of the Future”) and through the expected throng of taxis, buses, bicycles, trucks, rickshas, and pedestrians. Then it turns down a narrow hutong, a shortcut that leads to Zhongguancun, China’s Silicon Valley, an electrified (and slightly cleaner) version of Manhattan’s Canal Street.
In Zhongguancun, the epicenter of China’s $10 billion IT industry, you can’t miss the excitement – and the vertigo: China, the Internet, and the confluence of the two represent incredible business opportunities but are fraught with financial peril and political uncertainty, recent reminders being the December trial of a leader of the Chinese Democracy Party and a software engineer accused of aiding a pro-democracy online journal published by Chinese dissidents in the US. Feng and his associates could not be living in more interesting times.
Feng, born in Shanghai, was an infant when the Cultural Revolution exploded his family. “Our father was a cocky professor who refused to renounce his beliefs,” Bo’s older brother Tao says. “Being a professor was bad. Being a cocky professor was a disaster.” While professor Feng spent three years reading Mao to farmers in a reeducation camp, Bo stayed with his mother, who was forced to tie him in his crib during the day while she worked in a textile plant, earning $2 a month. The family was reunited when the Revolution ended in 1976. Bo’s father, then 39, returned to teaching and eventually helped found a university, Shanghai’s Institute of Management Science. He also began writing the first of more than 40 books about Chinese history, philosophy, and politics. In 1985 he entered politics, and he has since worked his way up as a leader in the Democratic League. As teenagers, Tao and Bo were sent abroad to study. Bo was 18 when he hit Northern California in 1987.
Landing in Marin County, he learned English, worked double shifts at Chinese restaurants, and enrolled part-time at a local college to study filmmaking. In 1989 he watched the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square – and the government’s armed response – on television. “I planned to be an artist and make films,” he says. “But that was before June 4. I saw then that China didn’t need three-hour art films, and I felt that I could not stay away from the challenge of building a new China.”
He quit school and moved into a $200-a-month apartment, earning rent as a busboy, waiter, and sushi chef. He dated Heidi Van Horn, a UC Berkeley social welfare major, whom he married in 1993. Soon after, his father-in-law introduced Feng to businessmen who were interested in promoting Visa in China. Feng educated his associates about China, translated, made introductions, and helped negotiate deals and review contracts. It led to a meeting with Sandy Robertson, then chair of Robertson Stephens.
The timing was fortuitous. Robertson was intrigued by the promise of China, and he invited Feng to interview at his investment bank. Feng faced seven of the firm’s partners, one of whom asked, “Why are you useful to us?” Feng answered carefully. “I will help you learn how we see China,” he said. “Many people look at China blindly, or they see one part and think it is the whole thing.” He used the analogy of seven blind men who think they know an elephant because they believe they recognize one part: the tusk, the trunk. “China is much more than any single piece,” Feng told them. “Westerners who fail to see the complexity of China will fail in China.”
Feng was hired as director of the China Group – initially Feng and a secretary – and soon brokered his first deals, creating funding packages for promising Chinese software and Internet companies. Four years later, he left Robertson Stephens and became a VC with ChinaVest. The firm has investments in several Chinese businesses, including joint ventures with T.G.I. Friday’s in Beijing and with both Domino’s Pizza and Tait Asia – which distributes Heineken and Disney videos – in China and Taiwan. Feng’s arrival added digital-age companies such as AsiaInfo to ChinaVest’s portfolio.
The Mercedes ferrying Feng through Zhongguancun stops in front of the Friendship Hotel, a cross between a Hilton and a traditional Chinese palace, complete with Western chandeliers and oversize red lanterns. In the center of the lobby, a 3-foot-high shark fin is encased in glass. Seeing it, Feng, who makes time to surf when he’s in California (aptly enough, bo, which sounds like snow, is Chinese for “wave,” and feng, which rhymes with tongue, means “to walk on water in bare feet”), jokes that he no longer eats shark-fin soup – bad karma. In the hotel’s coffee shop, he meets up with AsiaInfo CEO Edward Tian.
Another “child of the Cultural Revolution,” Tian took up science even though his parents, scientists who had been educated in Leningrad, were sent to a remote agricultural province to be reeducated. After the Revolution, he studied biology and sought, he says, “a purposeful life.” In grad school at the Academy of Sciences in Beijing, a professor encouraged him to apply to school in the US. “Since Mao dismantled the high educational system, at the time this was the only chance to become a world-class scientist,” says Tian. He headed to Texas Tech in 1987, where he earned a PhD in natural-resources management. Like Feng, Tiananmen Square changed his plans. “Pure science?” he says. “I felt that a Chinese person no longer had that luxury. I had to do something else – something that would have an impact.”
In mid-1993, Tian heard Al Gore discussing the information superhighway and fantasized about that thoroughfare reaching China. “We were starved for information,” Tian recalls. “The Internet could give Chinese children access. From an isolated province, they could visit the Louvre or any library in the world.” He wrote one of the first articles about the infobahn for a Chinese journal and started an email discussion group between expatriates, computer scientists, and environmentalists. Later in 1993, he wrote a friend of a friend, James Ding, another Chinese student in the US.
Ding, an engineer who worked on Internet technology at UCLA, agreed to work with Tian. The two started a BBS that grew into an early Web center with a search engine designed for academic research and email. Next they started AsiaInfo Daily News, translating news from Chinese into English for American readers.
With Ding, Tian finally returned to China in 1994. “I could have had a comfortable life in the States,” he says. “But what choice did I have? A Chinese poet writes, ‘Because of the irresistible calling of history, you have no choice.'” Indeed, he only sees his wife, who chose to remain in Texas with their 3-year-old daughter, six months out of each year.
Settling in Beijing, Tian and Ding worked as consultants to develop software for companies’ information systems. Sprint, an early Western entrant into China, was commissioned by the government to build a commercial Net in China. Sprint hired AsiaInfo – including Tian, Ding, and another friend, Liu Yadong. Eventually, state-owned China Telecom made a deal directly with AsiaInfo, and the three men hired engineers and built – with more than $4 million worth of imported equipment such as Sun SPARCstations and Cisco routers – the backbone of ChinaNet, the main commercial Internet system in China. The company creates and maintains intranets and Internet applications for private firms. It is, in short, China’s EDS.
AsiaInfo and ChinaNet have grown slowly but steadily in sync with the Internet. Introduced in China in 1994, the Net had by the end of 1997 acquired a Chinese audience of about 620,000. By the close of 1998, that figure had grown to 1.8 million, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. A conservative estimate for 2000 is 5 million, and the potential number is obviously enormous.
Many doubt that the Net will make a real difference to the Chinese, because access is controlled by the powers that be – connections with the outside world are squeezed through government-monitored gateways in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai equipped with firewalls programmed to block pornography and “incendiary” material. Of course, proxy servers easily circumvent these gateways, but the Public Security Bureau maintains a task force to monitor online services for “subversive and pornographic” material, ISPs are supposed to register all users with the bureau, and at least one software engineer has learned the hard way that, in China, information doesn’t always want to be free.
In April 1998, Lin Hai, who owns a Shanghai-based software company, was arrested and accused of “incitement to subvert the government” after he provided the addresses of 30,000 Chinese computer users to VIP Reference, an online journal edited by Li Hongkuan, a US-based Chinese dissident and a participant in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. VIP Reference sends uncensored political news to 250,000 Chinese email addresses. Hai’s office was searched, and in June he was further accused of tax evasion and “colluding” with foreign forces. His wife has been denied any visits since he was detained. Hai’s arrest was the first time anyone had been targeted by the government for political activities on the Net, but it was followed soon after by a crackdown on leaders of the nascent Chinese Democracy Party.
That happened in November, when Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, and Wang Youcai were arrested on charges of subversion. Wang Youcai, also a veteran of Tiananmen Square, rose to prominence as a student leader of the 1989 protests and has already served two years in prison. Last June, he boldly announced the formation of the Chinese Democracy Party on the day President Clinton arrived in China (the first visit by a US president in nine years). Police waited until Clinton’s departure, then moved against Wang and his fellow party leaders. On December 20, Wang was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Even as human rights in China were dealt this severe blow, the pace of economic reform accelerated. Indeed, the Chinese government is doing as much as private companies to push the Internet forward; it has invested $28 billion, according to Tian, to complete a fiber network that already links 85 percent of the country’s regional networks, and it has kept the market open.
There has been no attempt to limit the number of ISPs, so the price of access is dropping. Given its cozy relationship with the Ministry of Information Industry – government-related contracts represent more than 40 percent of its business – AsiaInfo is poised to profit from the myriad ways the Net, and perhaps other communications systems, will grow. Tian estimates revenues of $300 million in three years, up from $40 million now.
When AsiaInfo needed funding to grow in 1996, Tian approached Feng, who was still with Robertson Stephens. Feng said that AsiaInfo fit the criteria he looks for in an investment. “I’m not interested in a company if it only has a great product,” he says. “I’m not interested in a body without a soul.”
Feng, who at the time did not have his own fund, next looked for money, trying contacts in the US and Hong Kong. At a meeting with a potential investor in Hong Kong (the man’s other business interests included bacon fat and pork sides), Feng and Tian were asked, “What’s the Internet?” Tian looked wearily at Feng but nonetheless embarked on a lengthy explanation, after which the man said, “Aha! Now I understand. You are a plumber.”
Feng eventually found investors – Warburg Pincus, ChinaVest, Fidelity, and Sandy Robertson – and AsiaInfo was infused with $18 million. Tian insists that the money was the least important factor in making a deal with Feng. “We could have gone to other sources for capital,” he says, “but we went with Bo because of the ways he could help us set a course for the future. He does business like an artist, meaning it is never formulaic. He has an uncanny aptitude for personal relationships, the networking that comes so natural to him. We call it guanxi wang. The structures are futile without the relationship, the understanding, the guanxi.”
This is what Feng meant when he said he could help Westerners learn to see China as he does – as a web of relationships. Guanxi wang is the crucial social structure in China and runs deeper than anything Silicon Valley has ever known. Guanxi – the connections he makes and the rapport he establishes – are his currency.
After several closed-door meetings, Feng leaves AsiaInfo’s office and is again in traffic. He fusses with his mobile phone; the battery is dead. Feng borrows the driver’s phone to call his wife in California – one of his daily calls. He speaks baby talk to his son, Tiger, who is a month old.
The car stops in front of the crowded, ornate restaurant Quan Ju De, where Feng is led to a private back room. The founder and CEO of another of Feng’s companies – his first client – awaits him. Wang Zhidong, a boyish 31, is compact, sitting tightly in his chair, his hands folded around a cup of tea. He wears frameless glasses, a casual shirt with a company badge pinned on, light pants, and sandals.
Wang’s company, SRS Information Technology, makes RichWin 97 – the most popular Chinese software package – which works on top of Windows and transforms the ubiquitous OS so Chinese speakers can use it. Windows, whether it’s Microsoft’s English version or the Chinese edition, does not reflect the Chinese way of thinking, Feng says. Even its building blocks are Western. English characters are single byte; Chinese are double byte. In addition, Chinese users require utilities that are unnecessary in the West. The inherent difference is why Feng believes that homegrown software will prevail.
Wang, who grew up in poverty and worked part-time on a duck farm in a Southern province, says he “studied hard as a way out of the life presented to me.” He studied electronics at Peking University and worked as a freelance software engineer for Zhongguancun companies. Next Wang was hired as a software specialist by the university-sponsored Beijing’s Founder Group.
He left the government-related job and eventually formed a two-man company with an office in an abandoned school the partners rented. Feng heard about Wang and Yan Yuanchao, the man who wrote the original Chinese DOS. “They were legends in Zhongguancun,” says Feng. “They were known to be the smartest of the software geniuses.”
Feng searched them out at the decrepit school, climbing over a metal fence, pushing open a brittle door, and wandering through dimly lit hallways littered with broken glass. Wang was distrustful of businessmen but took to Feng: “Here was someone with whom I could talk – about business, about life.”
Feng asked Wang to write an informal business plan that Feng could show to potential investors. When Feng read it, he returned it to Wang. “Try again,” he said. “This time, no adjectives.” Feng used the revised plan to interest investors and came up with $6.5 million. Besides the money, Feng helped bring in an American banker, Mark Fagan, as SRS’s CFO. Since then, the company has grown quickly, mostly on the basis of RichWin 97. Fifty percent of new PCs sold in China have Wang’s program, which is bundled with computers made by IBM, Acer, Hewlett-Packard, and Legend. A new version will include browser enhancement; it will make the Net more China-friendly. Five million copies of RichWin are in circulation, only half of which were paid for. But Wang says he’s unconcerned that the rest are bootleg; he says his program is cheap enough that many people who can hardly afford computers increasingly choose to pay for authentic programs because of worries about bugs and lack of documentation.
Early on, according to Wang, Microsoft execs paid him a visit, to see if the start-up might undermine Redmond’s position in what may one day be the world’s largest market. At the time, it looked as if RichWin would drastically cuts into sales of Windows. What’s more, Wang contended that Chinese Windows could one day be extraneous underneath RichWin (much as DOS is becoming expendable underneath Windows 98).
In a series of meetings at SRS, Wang reports, Microsoft tried to convince him to create programs that remained compatible – nay, dependent – on Windows. In the short term, Microsoft won and RichWin remains compatible with Windows. But, Wang says, that could still change. A better program at a cheaper price could inspire Chinese computer makers – and even foreign makers who want to sell in China – to make systems based on RichWin instead of Windows. “The time is not yet right,” Wang says cautiously. For now, SRS is focusing its energy on Internet strategy.
At lunch, Feng and Wang meet Wang Yan, vice president in charge of the company’s Web site – one of the most popular in China. Wang Yan, a graduate of the Université de Paris, wears a white shirt and a tie with spotted owls. He reports that his Web site’s World Cup coverage got 3.1 million hits a day, a record for any Chinese site. At the end of 1996, the site claimed 20,000 registered users. Now there are 200,000. Already the most popular portal in China, SRS bolstered its position in China itself, as well as with the Chinese community worldwide, when it joined Sinanet.com, which offers sites for North American Chinese and Taiwanese. Together, the companies pull in roughly 65 million pageviews a month, more than twice the number of the closest competitor, Yahoo! Chinese. This joint venture, Sina Inc. (www.sina.com), provides email, a search engine, software, news, job listings, financial services, chat rooms, and links to Chinese sites worldwide. It’s confident of staying ahead of Yahoo! Chinese because of its proprietary software and ease of use.
Wang Yan grew up in the silicon alleys of Zhongguancun. “If you are from this district, you have a warped vision of the world,” he says. “If you are sent to the store to buy apples, you must be reminded to buy real apples.”
After lunch, Feng huddles with SRS’s CEO to discuss the launch of the first Chinese Java program, RichSight Java Set – how it should be marketed and sold. Feng and Wang also discuss impending management issues; Feng is once again being asked to assist in hiring managers. “Good managers are at a premium here,” he says. “The shortage is worse than in the West, because there is no tradition of management training. There are plenty of dreamers with ideas, but little sense of the ways to manage organizations as they grow from sales of a few million dollars to hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars.”
Feng leaves the restaurant and makes an appointment for a large gathering of AsiaInfo directors on Sunday night (often the only “free” time for meetings) on his way to the airport. There, he hops on an Air China flight to Hangzhou, a lakeside city with gardens of Jurassic-looking irises. In Hangzhou, a taxi drives him past acres of tea plants, reminiscent of Napa Valley vineyards, and drops him in front of a smoky café, where he meets DeKang head Kong Hongjia. DeKang now has sales of $6 million and 20 percent of the market for cell phone billing software. Over Longjing tea, Kong and Feng return to the possibility of an AsiaInfo alliance. Once again, Feng begins with a volley of questions about Kong’s goals and his vision of the company’s future. The negotiations continue until the café closes. Finally, “the understanding,” as Feng calls it, is complete, and the deal is all but sealed. (The alliance has since become official.) They say good night, and Feng leaves for his hotel. In his room at 4 a.m., he calls his wife in San Francisco, where it is lunchtime.
Similarly jam-packed days follow. One morning, after an extravagant three-and-a-half-hour nap, he boards a train to Shanghai. His “soft” seat – meaning it’s cushioned, unlike the standard wooden seats – costs $6. Train travel is ideal for him because he can spend the entire time on the phone. (Chinese domestic airlines have no telephones.)
The lobby of the Shanghai Ritz-Carlton – Feng’s hotel for the night and his equivalent of Buck’s in Woodside, California – has sculptures, an arcing skylight, and painted screens. A harpist and a flutist play on the mezzanine. Below, Feng holds successive meetings with representatives of other companies in which he may invest, including enterprises focusing on thermal printing, CD-ROMs, global satellite position systems for trucking companies, and a central Web site for Chinese real estate.
One young man who arrives at Feng’s table is Gao Limin, 31, who is dressed casually in jeans and a Polo shirt. The son of engineers, Gao designed software in China and Germany, where he first “saw the vision” of the Internet. He returned to China, and five years later in 1997, Gao and four friends (“my comrades”) started StockStar, modeled after financial sites like Silicon Investor and Motley Fool. They collected 100,000 yuan ($12,000) and began writing, gathering, and programming the content. The site soon became one of China’s most popular, with traffic doubling every six months and nearing 150,000 registered users by the end of 1998. Gao speaks fast, whether about margin trading or servers. He answers Feng’s many questions quickly and with confidence.
Feng says that before he will work with the start-up, Gao must prepare an extensive business plan that addresses the question of ownership. (The site relies on a T1 line supplied by a government agency.) But Feng says that he can easily imagine StockStar evolving into a Chinese E*Trade and seems taken with Gao. When Gao leaves, Feng turns and says, “See! See that! China is a rusty machine. With people like that, idealistic and resolute, we are going to fix China, piece by piece.”
David Sheff (email@example.com) is author of Game Over, a book about Nintendo.