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2016-12-04 20:52:14
Silicon Valley’s Culture, Not Its Companies, Dominates in China

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The majesty of the Golden Gate, the windy chill of Alcatraz, the tourist hubbub of Pier 39 — Zhao Haoyu’s itinerary for San Francisco had it all.

Yet when Mr. Zhao, a Chinese tourist, arrived with his wife in September, they spent their first day wandering the humdrum suburban office parks that Facebook and Google call home.

Joining a guided bus tour with a dozen other Chinese visitors, the two became part of the steady flow of Chinese tourists to Silicon Valley that represents — despite pervasive censorship and outright hostility from the Chinese government — the tremendous influence Silicon Valley wields in China.

“You hear so much about these companies in China,” said Mr. Zhao, a native of the southern Chinese city of Kunming who is in his 30s. “We just wanted to experience it.”

China in recent years has given rise to a vibrant and innovative tech industry that in some ways surpasses what Americans can do online. But it has done so despite a culture dictated by Confucian conformity and, more recently, the strict rules of the Chinese Communist Party.

Neither prizes rebellion or disruption, so China’s young entrepreneurs and investors have looked for guidance and inspiration in a place that does: Silicon Valley.

China’s tech world has copied the valley’s innovator-meet-investor network of incubators, accelerators and venture capitalists. Start-up employees and leaders actively seek to question authority and think outside the box — two attributes widely discouraged in corporate China.

Many of those copying the model have never worked in Silicon Valley, so their understanding comes secondhand. Yao Shuqi, a 28-year-old entrepreneur, is one of many who cite “The Pirates of Silicon Valley,” a 1999 made-for-TV movie about Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple, as a guiding force. (In some instances, reflecting an era before Apple’s resurgence, it is translated into Chinese as “The Heroes of Microsoft.”)

“I was having difficulty finding a partner who specializes on the technology side,” said Mr. Yao, who estimated that he watched the movie more than 10 times in 2013 and 2014. “I started to wonder how people in ‘The Pirates of Silicon Valley’ found their partners. So I watched the film over and over and learned a lot from it.”

Silicon Valley’s soft power in China is unlikely to help Facebook or Google get back into China. But it demonstrates the sort of influence China seeks for itself. Despite its innovations, China’s online renaissance has taken place largely within its own borders, and the country’s ambitions to create companies with global influence so far have been largely unsuccessful.

It also provides a model for a new type of Chinese business guru, politician and thought leader, in the vein of Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. Already the Chinese tech world has created figures like Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant the Alibaba Group, and Lei Jun, a founder of the budget smartphone maker Xiaomi, who derive their influence from channels outside the Chinese Communist Party. The party in turn courts them even as it seeks to contain them, often holding them up as examples of Chinese innovation.

Baidu, one of China’s largest tech companies and often called the Google of China, owes a heavy debt to the valley. One founder, Eric Xu, made a documentary about Silicon Valley in the late 1990s and helped model the company around an unstructured, meritocratic — and thoroughly non-Chinese — organizational style its founders admired.

Employees receive copies of a book called the “Baidu Analects,” said Kaiser Kuo, a former spokesman for Baidu and the host of the China podcast Sinica. “It’s anecdote after anecdote of these borderline insubordinate employees who stuck to their ideas in spite of pushback, and the enlightened manager who let them do it, and ultimately they triumph,” Mr. Kuo said. “It’s almost this libertarian, Ayn Rand ethos.”

At times it seems to embrace Silicon Valley clichés more eagerly than Silicon Valley itself.

A prominent techie cafe in Beijing has a large wall with a timeline charting the initial public stock offerings of American tech companies alongside those in China. Some companies have created Apple-style product unveilings that are ticketed, cultural events. A developer in China is planning to start work on “tech towns” — planned communities where the innovative-minded can live and work together. Start-up offices often have open seating plans with office pets, foosball tables and a boss sitting with the employees.

“Silicon Valley has become a kind of beacon of cultural change in China,” said David Chao, a partner at the venture capital firm DCM. “Hollywood could impact what kind of handbag a lady buys in China, but it never impacted corporate culture like Silicon Valley has.”

Even so, most Chinese companies have not fully absorbed the culture. Many are still highly top-down and bureaucratic, and open office plans often mask more deeply conservative customs. In place of California’s sunny suburbs, China’s innovation hub sits in the traffic and smog-choked northwestern part of Beijing, crammed into office towers above malls that sell all manner of electronics.

The trend is nonetheless driving young people to take more risks and demand more from employers, even as it brings with it a problem familiar to Silicon Valley: hangers-on more interested in being a part of the scene than anything else.

“There are people choosing technology not because they love it or want to do a start-up,” said Jesse Lu, a Chinese entrepreneur who spent time at Y Combinator, a prominent start-up accelerator in the United States. “They just do it because they enjoy the lifestyle of a start-up. They enjoy choosing their hours, having small teams, not listening to anybody, doing what they think is right. It’s a new fashion.”

Silicon Valley seems largely unaware of its cultural influence in China and appears to do little to cater to it.

Last year, Facebook fired an enterprising Chinese employee who played to the unmet demand and charged one group of tourists $20 each to tour the campus and eat in the company’s cafeteria. Now, the only thing notable for tourists to see is its thumbs-up sign.

In Mountain View, Mr. Zhao and the tour group snapped photos of a cluster of brightly painted plaster statues designed after various Google corporate mascots. Next door is Google’s visitor store, a sort of swag graveyard set up in converted office space where the company sells all manner of clothes and trinkets — including Frisbees and water bottles — imprinted with the Google logo.

“They used to not let our buses on the campus, but now they built this area where we can come and take pictures,” said Ken Guan, the leader of the tour group.

“People are surprised,” he added. “They think it will be a booming commercial area, but it’s just a bunch of offices.”