|Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 12, June 11- 17
by Patrick Madison
China is filled with people like 26-year-old Roger Meng, who works in Beijing for a company that does market analysis for businesses. Without enough money to buy even an instruction manual, they have somehow managed not only to embrace technology, but also to master it.
These Chinese techies have created a talent pool that, for example, impelled Microsoft Corp. to put its first Asian research facility in Beijing rather than in a place such as Singapore - despite Singapore's subsidies, high-tech industrial parks and superb communications infrastructure.
To get an insight into how they do it, I asked Mr. Meng if I could write about him. He agreed to answer all my questions frankly, with two caveats that reflect the desire among many Chinese to preserve some anonymity: He asked me to use his adopted English name, Roger, instead of his Chinese name, and not to give the address of his website.
First, I set him the ultimate challenge: to make my nearly new IBM laptop work properly. We all read about "plug and play," but has anyone ever actually set up a new computer without running into glitches that require the intervention of a computer sciences PhD?
This particular machine, even though I've spent hours on the phone with technicians and have sent it off to repair facilities, refuses to go into the suspend mode when I shut the lid. With fingers flying and windows and boxes popping onto the screen faster than I could read them, Mr. Meng diagnosed the problem in 10 minutes. But the fix, alas, will require three hours he couldn't spare, so it will have to await my next visit to China.
"I call myself the new technical generation," Mr. Meng says as he hunches over my laptop. "This is my life. I don't buy many clothes, I eat lunch at the company cafeteria and buy a simple dinner. But I'm well-connected to the world."
Mr. Meng, of the close-cropped hair and shy smile, taught himself his first programming language at the age of 12, at a time when most Chinese had never heard of a computer, much less seen one. At 14, he acquired a primitive computer, with no hard drive and no word processor. He could print out something he'd written only by programming the computer each time to perform that task.
Two years ago he hit the big time when he salvaged a 166-megahertz Pentium microprocessor from a defunct personal computer. With that, he assembled his own computer from components he had collected from friends in return for fixing their PCs. He got a hard drive with bad sections on it, then used software to mark those sections and tell Windows to skip them. The whole computer cost him US$120.
With this newly recycled computer, he became an internet addict. Because time spent on-line is expensive in China - and things move at a snail's pace at peak hours - he'd have his computer do his research while he slept. Using software called Teleport Pro, it would automatically connect to the internet, go to his favorite Western newspapers, like the Washington Post, scan them for articles with key words such as "China," and download them. He'd wake in the morning, skim the articles and put the most interesting ones on his website, which now gets an average of 3,000 hits a day.
Improving his website is consuming every yuan and every hour he can spare. "The internet is a big school," Mr. Meng says. "I learned everything about designing web pages from the internet; I didn't have to buy a book or take a course." But, he notes, "setting up a web page takes a lot of time and money. I pay ¥350 [US$42] a month for telephone time and internet access. That's one-quarter of my salary."
Mr. Meng's website is dazzling by any definition. To get to his home page, you click on a house; to read articles and letters, click on a book. Filled with art and photos, some of the pages are accompanied by music.
Why go to all this trouble?
A fact of life for people such as Mr. Meng is that pirated software plays a large role in making their work with computers financially feasible. He says he bought a pirated version of Windows 98 on the street for ¥10 - a little more than one dollar - when stores were selling it for ¥1000, which, he notes, "can be a month's salary."
"Basically, people buy pirated software unless they get it with their computer," he says. "I've only seen one instance otherwise, when my neighbor bought a computer game from a store because he wanted to own the manual and the beautiful box."
At the same time that China is cracking down on dissent, Mr. Meng says the government is relaxing its regulations on the internet, making it so easy for people to sign up that not even an ID card is required. But he sees little danger that the government will be undermined by the flood of uncensored information coming in.
"People can judge for themselves what they need and how the government works," he says. "They don't care whether Clinton criticizes China. They're thinking not about the rest of the world, but how to get better housing and improve the quality of life. And that's what they sense the government is trying to do."