Especially among people who haven’t traveled there, there’s still conventional wisdom that China is the land of the cheap knockoff, not just of hardware but of Internet services: Baidu apes Google, Tencent is just Yahoo, and so on. That’s not true anymore and How a Nation of Copycats Transformed Into a Hub for Innovation, by Clive Thompson in Wired, destroys that characterization conclusively.
The tales Thompson tells are very Silicon Valley: educated young adults with an entrepreneurial urge break away from steady but uninspiring positions at established firms to create something new or convince their leaders to try something new. There’s an obsession with speed. Accelerator proliferate. Thompson spies a DO EPIC SHIT sticker on a refrigerator. He explores how phone maker Xiaomi delivers highly anticipated weekly updates to its operating system that are built around user feedback.
As in Silicon Valley, the entrepreneurs Thompson interviews tend to be solving problems like movie ticketing and dating game shows that aren’t exactly world-changing. And China’s repressive political system doesn’t allow for the sort of government-challenging social enterprise that can thrive in other nations. But Thompson reveals a widespread attitude to innovation that’s way beyond the copycat caricature. After years of being accused of stealing product ideas from Silicon Valley, China’s latest success may come from grabbing select Silicon Valley values and grafting them onto its unique culture.