Laowai Interview: David Wolf of Silicon Hutong

David WolfWe continue our series of posts interviewing some of the more prolific laowai bloggers with a discussion with David Wolf.

David is President and CEO of Wolf Group Asia, but is most well-known to those of us in the ‘sphere as author of Silicon Hutong, a blog that insightfully covers China’s technology and IT sectors.

Lost Laowai: By expat standards, you’ve been “in country” a very long time — since the mid-90s. What was it that initially brought you here?

David Wolf: A “long time” is comparative. Everytime I start fancying myself as a China Hand, I think about Roberta Lipson of Chindex or others who were doing business here while I was studying Chinese at Berkeley.

I had actually wanted to live and work in China since graduate school, and nearly got my chance in 1989, but events conspired to keep me stateside. I worked for a state-owned enterprise (Li-Ning) for a while, made what I finally figured were 70 trips across the Pacific, and grabbed the first opportunity I could that offered to move me over here, and in 1995 I finally moved to China permanently.

I was sent over to turn an entrepreneur’s promise to his investors of China’s first television shopping network into a reality. That was a learning experience. We managed to work miracles on a shoestring, but the organization was perpetually short of funds. I have no regrets, though: it got me here, it introduced me to the woman I would marry, and it got me deep into the Chinese media industry.

LLW: Undoubtedly China has changed a great deal in the nearly decade and a half since you first arrived. Where would you say the country has made the biggest strides and where does it still have a long way to go?

David: That could be the subject of a blog all by itself. I think the greatest achievement of the past 15 years is that China has proven to the world – and itself – that the country and its people are capable of historic accomplishment. There is a growing self-confidence in China that is finally starting to overcome the nation’s longstanding inferiority complex, and that is a good thing. On October 1, 1949, Mao declared to China that the nation had finally stood-up. Today, I think the nation finally believes that, and that belief opens the door to a new era.

You could make a list of the areas China needs to address – the environment; development in the countryside; corporate, economic, and political governance. But I think there is something more fundamental happening. China is a nation that is still in search of its soul, of a grand purpose that gives a greater meaning to its development than prosperity. I mean that collectively and individually. “To Get Rich Is Glorious” has brought the nation a long way, but it is not enough. The challenge that will face the next generation in China will be to continue the effort to bring prosperity to a broader segment of the population, but do it while infusing the Chinese people with a greater sense of purpose.

LLW: I’ve yet to meet a foreigner who graciously accepts the term “old China hand”, but there’s little argument that you fit the bill. Like all of us, I’m sure you went through your share of cultural acclimatization, what I’m curious about though is whether there is anything about living in China that despite your years here still gets under your skin?

David: I’ll cop to the “old” part of that, but the longer I live here the more I realize how little I truly know – or can know – about China.

Naturally there are things that get to me about living here, but I think most of those are things I see happening that are harmful to the place and the people that there is just no need to allow to happen. I think if you lose a mild sense of outrage about things that are bad and could be improved, you have surrendered something important. Progress in any society is born out of an unhappiness with the present and a vision of how things could be better. And if we as foreigners living in China are not here to drive progress, to help create a better China, we should pack our bags and baubles and get on the next plane.

Living in China should not entail complete acceptance of things as they are because “this is China.” At the same time, living in China should not be an endless anger and frustration that China is not America, or Australia, or England. Living in China for a foreigner should be a serenity prayer – change what you can, accept what you cannot, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

LLW: How did your blogs, Silicon Hutong and Peking Review, come to be? What are some of the fundamental differences between them?

David: Silicon Hutong was born because I loved writing, had done no writing to speak of for a decade, and because I saw blogging as an opportunity to re-learn the craft by talking about the things I’ve learned doing business here. I called it Silicon Hutong because much of what I do focuses on technology, the Internet, games, and the innovative industries here in China.

I started Peking Review because I wanted a place where I could talk about things that were not related to that core set of interests, and in particular my love for books. But after a period of time I realized that I could not have two mistresses. So Silicon Hutong did a friendly takeover of Peking Review, and it has worked out well. I write now more than I did when there were two blogs.

LLW: At present, what is the value for professionals (in any industry) to blog? Where do you see that going in the future?

David: The value of blogging varies from person to person. I’ll never get rich blogging, but my blog has been a great help to me in my career in a lot of indirect ways. It has proven a great place for me to find my voice as a writer, it has helped me work through some complex issues with the help of the people who comment, and it has become a calling card that allows my clients to get to know me before we even meet.

Yet just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it is the right thing for everyone. I would never suggest anyone blog unless I knew that person had something to add to the conversation. Conversely, I would never hesitate to tell someone to blog when they have something to contribute and are not doing so, and I have, in some cases with great success.

As a craft, I think blogging has reached its adolescence, and that we are going to see a net decline in the number of people blogging. The people who really love it, who can justify the time commitment, and who have found a way to make it pay off for them monetarily or otherwise will continue. A lot of other people will gravitate to other platforms to make their contributions. And hopefully those of us who are left can continue to earn the attention and readership of the people who read and comment.

The future of tech is only partly about knowing the ones and zeros. The real important part of it is understanding what tech can and will do for (and to) markets and customers. That is where the future of the industry is – working companies and industries through the disruptive changes that technology is going to wreak on all of us, especially in this backward little corner of the planet called China.

Are we odd to enjoy living in a place that is characterized by ongoing disruptive change and the wreaking of havoc on a regular basis? Perhaps. But if I may say, every time the species has adapted to change, those first manifesting the outward signs of that adaptation were considered, at best, weird. I have seen the future, and it is us.

LLW: Though the above quote (from the post “Revolution” in the SH archives) certainly speaks to a larger group than just us laowai, you rather succinctly sum up why I feel China’s foreign population continues to rise – particularly in industries (such as technology, media and communications) that strive on change. I think that as a group we tend to be unafraid of change, are willing to explore and adapt, and are – frankly – a bit weird.

What are your thoughts on China’s expat population, and how do you feel it compares (in skills, tone and lifestyle) to expatriates in other Asian countries?

David: That quote is living proof that friends do not let friends blog drunk.

Someone very wise once said to me that there are two kinds of expats in China: the ones who are here for a good time, and the ones who are here for a long time. I have heard other, less kind voices say that the definition of an expat is someone who has failed at home so goes abroad to redeem himself, the “loser back home” stereotype.

I like these quotes because they hint at a greater truth – expats as a crowd are a boulliabase – varied, interesting, and impossible to characterize in any simple way. Expats in China – expats anyplace – are pioneers, people who for varied motives have left their homes in the hopes of making a better life someplace else regardless of the challenges that effort implies.

In any country, though, a core community develops of people who are here because our skills, our attitudes, and our values fit into our host country in a way that is natural, almost effortless. And it’s like a silent club – we know each other when we see each other, and over time we identify someone who falls into that core community with three simple words that are the ultimate praise – “he gets it” or “she gets it.”

Each individual in that community is a bit weird. For me the beauty of this core of expats is their difference, their variety of viewpoints, and their weirdness. And those people succeed here and in other places where change and disruption are the only constants, and where people accustomed to more genteel conditions wind up as road-kill. They are living proof of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic axiom “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Could the going be any weirder than it is here?

LLW: You’ve spoken previously about China having the potential to spur some serious and exciting innovation, both domestically and globally, especially in the fields of energy and the environment. What do you see as being the key developments and roadblocks towards this?

David: That’s a great question. The simple truth is that China’s existence depends on its continued growth, and its continued growth depends as much on reversing the environmental damage done in the past and finding new ways to power the economy as it does on exports, investment, and consumers.

China cannot grow on oil at $100 a barrel through dependence on any non-renewable energy supply. That is going to demand national focus on tapping a range of new sources of energy, and doing it more efficiently. China has the motive and opportunity to drive large-scale alternative energy projects, study their strengths and weaknesses, and drive great minds to innovate.

What China lacks is a clear mechanism for inciting, enabling, and rewarding innovation. Part of the answer lies on grafting the American garage-family-mezzanine-venture-IPO-buyout model onto Chinese business, but not totally. China’s great need is for a uniquely Chinese system to enable and commercialize innovation that matches local culture, economics, and politics, and the immediate opportunity is in renewable energy, sustainable technology, and the environment, because those fields as yet lack massive global rivals.

But again, this is all potential. Unless China grabs for those opportunities with everything it has, it will wind up the low-cost producer for this generation of technology in the same way that it did during the silicon revolution.

LLW: From your blogs it seems you are an avid reader. With no shortage of “everything-you-need-to-know-about-China” books out there, is there one that you feel gives the best, perhaps most well-grounded/rounded, view of what China is “really” like?

David WolfDavid: I do love books. My motto should be “so many books, so little time.”

I think it is unfair to ask a single author to capture the true essence of China in the number of pages would fit between two covers. It is not possible to capture even the broad outlines of what makes China tick – much less the important nuances – in one volume or even three, and given the rate at which this place changes, that makes the ask all the more impossible. It is the proverbial elephant being described by blind men, and as readers we need to read many descriptions to approach the truth.

For that reason I could recommend ten before I could recommend one, but if I could recommend a place to start your reading on China, I’d say begin with fiction.
Pa Chin’s The Family and other Chinese classics have excellent English translations. Regardless, start reading and keep reading. The picture will get clearer with each book. I’ve got 23 books on Silicon Hutong that I recommend. Pick one and get going.

LLW: I’ve heard you refer to yourself as an “egg”, white on the outside and yellow in the middle. Though certainly an asset living in China long term, what effect has having such a deep relationship and connection to a culture not originally your own had on your sense of national and personal identity?

Being an expat has taught me that identity is not one-dimensional, and that when our identity becomes a mixture of flavors rather than a single taste, each flavor somehow becomes richer and stronger.

David: I have built over the years a deep affection for China and the Chinese people, one that I would like to think is neither worshipful nor condescending, but like the affection you have for a longtime best friend. You see their strengths, you see their faults, and you appreciate them for who they are, even as you hope for them to grow and improve.

But just as there is a part of me that is Chinese and always will be, that has strengthened my own national and personal identity rather than weakened it in the same way that friendship reinforces who you are rather than undermines it. My Judaism became stronger when I came to China – I am much more observant today than I ever was, and that only grows with each passing day.

And as to my identity as an American? When I went to the Wukesong baseball stadium last March to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers play the San Diego Padres, before the game got started the announcer asked us all to stand as the ISB choir sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It sounds corny, but as I heard the words and watched the American flag fly over center field, I choked up.

Being an expat has taught me that identity is not one-dimensional, and that when our identity becomes a mixture of flavors rather than a single taste, each flavor somehow becomes richer and stronger. What keeps me here is the desire to pass that onto my Chinese-Jewish-American son, because if we are to ever become a global society, we must raise children who have within themselves the ability to integrate the different, the unique, and the strange.

LLW: And finally, looking forward, what does the future hold for David Wolf, WGA, Silicon Hutong and Peking Review?

David: I feel like I stand on the brink of the most exciting time in my life, in my business, and in my writing. I can’t tell you what the specifics will be, but I keep jumping out of bed every day, and that’s always a good sign.