SAN FRANCISCO — Where are the Big Ideas?
Dr. Yangyang Zhang has plenty of them.
“Near-space technology” developed by his company, Kuang-Chi, promises Jetsons-like comfort with the Martin Jetpack and metamaterial, which can be used to flow light around an object, effectively rendering it invisible. It’s the type of venture that personifies a fearless can-do spirit and insatiable appetite for risk- taking that imbues the country’s young generations — one fully supported by the government.
Chinese scientists are launching the largest telescope into space by year’s end, and they’ve completed the deepest (1.5 miles) underground research lab. Portable chargers, meanwhile, are being sold to homeowners to convert homes into mini-charging stations for electric cars, says Carl Yao, executive vice president of global strategy at CSOFT International, a multilingual-localization software company in Beijing.
“There is a hunger to do extraordinary things,” Yao says.
A golden age in innovation is ubiquitous: Biotech, mobile apps and transportation projects lead the way. Drones — everything from do-it-yourself helicopters to robotic rickshaws and homemade submarines — tickle the imagination. China leads the world in registered patents.
The Chinese ambitions for tech extend to business. On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping bore several gifts: a $38 billion contract with Boeing to supply 300 planes and a wide-ranging accord between Cisco Systems and Inspur, a Chinese cloud computing and data center company.
The mega-deals highlight the business potential of China, where 600 million people are online, and the difficulties facing foreign tech companies in China. Silicon Valley’s concern with China isn’t just low-end smartphone makers and Alibaba.
“The post-1990s generations are spitting out ideas, and most everyone in their 20s does everything on their phone,” says Robert Ritacca, an American investor living in Beijing.
Against that backdrop — and amid an obsession with the vast revenue possibilities of the China market for tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook — Xi made a whirlwind spin through Seattle and Redmond, Wash., where he met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. (Washington state is the largest exporter by dollars to China.)
Xi is scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., for high-level talks with the White House later in the week. The superpowers are negotiating what could become the first arms-control accord for cyberspace, The New York Times reported Sunday.
What’s happening in China — it trails only the U.S. in annual gross domestic product, according to Marisa Drew, an analyst at Credit Suisse — underscores parallel paths in technology as companies from both countries increasingly do battle for revenue and market share in every corner of the world.
American technologists and venture capitalists argue important ideas originate here, and that China is merely mimicking advances here. They also point out a wide disparity in annual income in China and a rigid education system that is not conducive to bottom-up creativity.
Still, the country’s sheer population (1.4 billion, as of 2013) and multitude of generations have produced a bumper crop of start-ups. Because it’s never been less expensive to start a company anywhere in the world, and with mobile technology seemingly everywhere, it’s never been a better time to “go for it,” says Trevor Nagel, an expert in technology transactions at global law firm White Case.
“The days of China being called copycats are over; they’re not just imitators,” Nagel says. “But I would make a distinction: The U.S. still leads in invention. The Chinese are good at innovating with nuance and a twist. Their expertise in robotics manufacturing is a prime example.”
Mammoth buildings with architectural flair (see CCTV Headquarters) and mind-bending transit projects (Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway) dot the cityscape and countryside. No surprise, then, when China Rail and U.S.-based XpressWest this month announced plans to construct a $7 billion high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
At times, the U.S. tech field seems hamstrung by fear of failure, adrift in shared-economy services like Uber and Airbnb that improve on existing services, and new smartphones from Apple that offer showy, if incremental, change. (That could change if reports are true Apple is accelerating efforts to build an electronic car by 2019.)
Even Cisco’s partnership with Inspur comes with a caveat. The U.S. company’s sales in China have declined since 2012, prompting it to team with the Chinese upstart to help turn things around.
With Xi headed to Washington, tech turns its attention to another visiting dignitary from a populous overseas market. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be of particular interest to Facebook and Google, whose services are blocked in China, but available in India, where the population of 1.3 billion is second only to China.
It’s a small world in tech, after all.
Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz on Twitter: @jswartz.
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