In China, change comes so quickly that the future can arrive before the past is fully stripped away By
Christina Larson In late October 2017, when I went to visit Kai-Fu Lee, China’s premiere artificial intelligence (AI)-focused venture capitalist, I entered his office complex from the back side of the building. Mistakenly, I took a wrong elevator and, as if tripping through a wormhole, briefly found myself in the Beijing of the past century.

In the early 2000s, this corner of Zhongguancun – the area of northern Beijing now often referred to as China’s Silicon Valley – was mostly famous for its sprawling electronics markets. There were several high-rise buildings, in which you could roam vast open floors connected by narrow escalators and packed with stalls selling everything from cameras to TVs, DVD players to toasters, dancing Santas to neon dildos.

Some items were made by major, household brands such as Samsung, Nokia, and Canon; many more of them were knock-off products, with names creatively similar to the “real” thing. Most of the time, the electronics were assembled in China; almost never were they invented in China.

This image is still deeply ingrained in the western imagination – that of the industrious “copycat” nation. But a few years ago, China’s leaders decided they wanted the country to be known for a new kind of electronics– not only “Made in China”, but “Designed in China”.

The authorities can’t exactly whip up innovation by decree, but the local government can influence real estate – and through a series of incentives and edicts, it began swapping out tenants. Many of the cheap electronics vendors packed up their boxes, while new technology businesses moved into refurbished office spaces: startups, investors and even patent attorneys. Read more from…

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