SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12
That drive animates the young faces that dominate Haidian. In a shop selling computer parts, Shu Lei, a frenetic 23-year-old manager, sits at a card table inspecting the parts of a Compaq hard drive and laughing with friends and coworkers. A recent college graduate, Shu elected to work for a private business in Haidian rather than pursue a job in engineering, his chosen field of study. "My salary is only so-so," he says, "but I can learn a lot, and we have freedom. In another year, I'll have my own shop."
The fascination that keeps young programmers banging away at their terminals is the same today as it was 30 years ago, when Bill Gates wrote his first computer program: the ability to make a machine do what you tell it. In today's unpredictable China it's easy to understand the appeal of a machine in which input and output are hardwired together.
Cluttered shops like Shu's, which are filled with row after row of plugs, prongs and pins, double as consulting firms and even social clubs. Wandering amid the shelves is a collection of college-age programmers, many of whom run their own consulting businesses. In back, inevitably, you can find a souped-up personal computer with an oversized monitor running the latest Java or Shockwave program from Silicon Valley or Seattle. Nearby, usually on a black leatherette couch, hackers cluster, joke and--when a particularly terrific program crashes--cheer in appreciation of a noble but failed effort. It's not much different from what you'd find in Cupertino or Redmond--and that's the point.
What's different is what you see when you look up from the computer screen, when you gaze outside the windows of the shops at the China that still quivers outside. Haidian's main street, Baishiqiao, is perennially under construction, growing from one lane to two, and now four. Trucks, jeeps and bicycles piled high with PCs zip by in the traffic. The technology revolution is changing China every day. Haidian is the center of that revolution--and the stuff of dreams for those who hope that technology will make for a better, longer and (as always in China) richer life.
With reporting by Lori Reese
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