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.”
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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.
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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.
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“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.”