Earlier this month, I had the honor of joining a delegation of Silicon Valley business leaders invited to speak at the International Big Data Expo, where Chinese tech luminaries Robin Li (Co-Founder of Baidu) and Jack Ma (Founder of Alibaba) keynoted. I visit China every year, but am stunned each time by the incredible year-on-year progress. I’ve literally seen rice paddies transformed into flourishing tech centers in a matter of months. China knows how to move fast – very fast – and the rest of the world can learn a lesson from the country’s rapid dominance in the fields of AI and big data.
Beijing and Shenzhen have been China’s traditional technology centers, the former due to co-location with central government and the latter due to a critical mass of factories. Shanghai and Hangzhou also have thriving scenes, with Shanghai being an international financial center and Hangzhou housing the headquarters of Alibaba.
This changed when the Chinese government designated 150 hi-tech zones for rapid development. With backing from the most powerful entity in the country, these regions have exploded in innovation, influence, and impact.
Jiading, the “suburb of Shanghai”
Jiading is a northern suburb of Shanghai with over 1.5 million residents and an independent local government. The city’s the epicenter of China’s automotive industry, which started when Volkswagen opened their first Chinese car factory there.
Jiading has since become of hub for medical devices and emerging technologies. Xiaoi, the industry leader in natural language processing (NLP) and conversational AI, with 90% market share in China, started here.
If you’re looking for Giant Pandas or spicy hot pot, Chengdu is your go-to city. You might not know that the city also leads in electronics, automotive, aviation, biotech, and software. Intel builds over half their chips in Chengdu!
Our Silicon Valley delegation visited an “incubator of incubators” in a huge 7 building complex housing 26 different incubators and over 600 startups. This massive project took only a year to build and a year to reach 85% capacity. Microsoft and Amazon both house corporate incubation centers here, and the center features a rich and broad support ecosystems to help their startups succeed.
Government funding certainly helps. With many government agencies nearby, along with necessary services like legal, real estate, account, and even expat services targeted to foreign founders, startups only need to walk down the block to get everything they need.
Five years ago, the Chinese government chose Guiyang to be the country’s “big data center” because of the predictable climate and stable inland location. Just a mere four years ago, the electricity was so unstable that Gao Jiahui, the CEO of a smart lock company, couldn’t even pilot his hardware at local five star hotels. Since then, the city has modernized and stepped into the international spotlight.
Of course, Guiyang hosted the International Big Data Expo our delegation spoke at. Star speakers and packed itineraries attracted over 30,000 attendees, both local and foreign. Jack Ma even noted that China no longer needs to look outwards for innovation, but rather concentrate within.
From Deserts To Rainforests
The Chinese government’s ability to turn economic deserts into technological rainforests has been proven in the growth of these three cities, and the advantages China has will only continue to grow. Both the population and the political leadership are well-trained in fundamental STEM education and the sheer population size leads to extraordinary volumes of data generated to improve consumer AI algorithms. New York City needs 30 years to simply extend a subway line, but the lack of legacy infrastructure means China can move fast with new development.
The billions of dollars of government investment doesn’t hurt either. In his address to G-20 leaders at the World Economic Forum, President Xi Jinping stunned his audience by calling for “dynamic, innovation-driven growth” and “balanced, equitable and inclusive development.”
“History is created by the brave,” he concluded. China is leading the charge.