China’s booming start-up scene has become as much a feature of its top-tier cities as traffic and smog. It used to be that college graduates applied for jobs at banks or state-owned enterprises, the proverbial “iron rice bowl” that their parents sought for them after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. But many of those jobs were unsatisfying: In a 2012 Gallup survey, 94 percent of Chinese respondents said they were unengaged with their jobs. Now, with public and private funding flowing into Chinese start-ups, entrepreneurship has become an appealing alternative for a generation disillusioned with the conveyor-belt career paths of their forebears.
There are plenty of homegrown success stories to inspire them. Where Chinese youth once worshipped at the altar of Steve Jobs, now they look to emulate Jack Ma, Robin Li, and Lei Jun, the founders of e-commerce firm Alibaba, the search engine Baidu, and the phone manufacturer Xiaomi. Alibaba’s IPO in the United States in 2014 was the biggest in history, raising $25 billion, and Xiaomi just filed its own IPO in Hong Kong, which is expected to raise $10 billion.
The tech revolution in China is ubiquitous in urban life. I use the messaging app WeChat for work calls and vacation bookings. I pay for a cup of coffee or a ride in a car with a scanned QR code on my phone. I go to work at a rented desk in an “experimental life space” called 5Lmeet, built in an old soy-sauce factory, which offers pop-up cuisine, a cashless, staffless convenience store, and an office space, the entrance gate to which uses face-recognition software to let me in. Every time I come out of a subway stop in Beijing, I have to fight through a mass of the cheap, rentable bicycles that have transformed transportation in the city. Dai Wei, the CEO of the leading bike-rental firm, Ofo—reportedly valued at $2 billion—is 27 years old.
In years past, Chinese companies have faced accusations that, rather than coming up with new inventions, they’re simply copycatting U.S.-made technologies for Chinese consumers—a trope that has made it onto the current season of Silicon Valley. As the progenitor of the so-called “four great inventions” (the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing), China has now claimed “four great new inventions”—shared bikes, e-commerce, mobile payment, and high-speed rail. The simplest of fact-checks reveals that none of those originated in China, though they were certainly popularized here.
But China has begun fostering a more creative entrepreneurial culture. In 2015, Premier Li Keqiang unveiled a plan, known as “Made in China 2025,” to update the country’s economy by investing in advanced industries, through subsidies, low-interest loans and other aid for Chinese companies. Within the next decade, China wants to be the world leader in robotics, artificial intelligence, and clean-energy cars, among other fields. President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power—most recently with the abolishing of presidential term limits—means that policy can reshape economy through a level of top-down control that democracies cannot emulate.