Ya-Qin Zhang, Microsoft's leader in China, prospers in changed nation
In a post-Cultural Revolution China that prized education and opportunity, Ya-Qin Zhang realized his potential — like his homeland is doing.
Seattle Times business reporter
Ya-Qin Zhang grew up in a two-room house smaller than a Microsoft conference room, at a time when China was in the grips of the Cultural Revolution.
Many intellectuals like his parents were sent to labor camps, and the country's entire education system was in shambles.
But the 42-year-old man who now leads Microsoft in China remembers the day 30 years ago when Chinese history changed course and the path ahead of him brightened. He went on to study electrical engineering at age 12, then the youngest college student in the country. By age 23, he had earned a Ph.D. in the U.S.
In many ways, his life mirrors the trajectory of China itself. As Zhang, prepared to carry the Olympic torch through Beijing this week ahead of today's opening ceremonies, he reflected on how far both have come.
Zhang was 10 when his mother came home with a newspaper article suggesting that China would soon restore the college entrance exam after more than a decade and restart a program for gifted students.
The message was clear: "Now there's opportunity," he said. "Now there's hope."
By 1978, China was like "a patient after a huge surgery," he said. "The whole country was hurt" by the political extremism of the decade and was only beginning to recover.
His own family had suffered dearly. Zhang's father, a physics professor, paid with his life. Zhang said his father's death was caused by the Cultural Revolution but would not elaborate.
Because he came from a family that owned factories, his father was singled out for persecution in a campaign to cleanse the population of "rightist" or capitalist elements. Zhang was raised by his mother and grandmother.
His mother pushed him to master a skill as a matter of survival. Zhang was good at many subjects, including Chinese painting and music.
"She said find one thing you're going to stick to and excel in," he said. "That's how you're going to survive."
Around the time China's higher-education system was being rebuilt, Zhang read about Ning Bo, a 13-year-old boy genius who had been admitted to the prestigious China University of Science and Technology in a special program for gifted kids.
"I was completely taken away," Zhang said. "I decided I wanted to be in the same class with him." He studied ferociously, skipped two grades and took the national entrance exam in 1978, the first one offered in China in 12 years.
And he realized his lifelong passion.
"I really wanted to be a scientist," he said. Sir Isaac Newton became his idol. "Back then the hottest subject was physics. The biggest celebrity was a mathematician."
That same year, his mother saw him off at the train station in Taiyuan, bound for college 1,000 miles away from home.
Driving down the main drag of Beijing's Zhongguancun high-tech district, it's hard to imagine a time before the computer megastores and sleek corporate parks existed.
But when Zhang arrived here in the 1980s, there were only four small shops selling electronics parts. The rest of the area was farmland dotted by universities. On his trips to Beijing to do research as a graduate student, he stayed in a guesthouse for 50 cents a week.
Zhang can pinpoint the origins of China's computer industry in one of the shops where he bought early computer chips and other electronics to do experiments. In winter, he rushed toward the coal-burning stove in the back to warm up. He waited three days to pick up 8 kilobytes of memory he ordered for his video engineering projects.
The shop was run by Legend, an offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Science. Legend grew over the years and changed its name to Lenovo, eventually buying IBM's personal-computer division in 2004. Now the multinational company with Chinese roots is worth $16 billion.
Today, along the same route, Zhang pointed out China's biggest tech companies, including Baidu, Alibaba, Sina and Tencent. In just 10 years, he has watched China's own market change dramatically.
The best-selling computer brands in China used to be foreign multinationals, he said. "Now the top four in China are indigenous companies."
Right in the middle of all this, Microsoft just broke ground on a new 3-acre campus. With 20 floors, it's the tallest building around, designed as a permanent home for the company's growing China operations.
When Zhang and Kai-fu Lee, then his boss, first proposed buying land for a building 10 years ago, Zhang recalled, "Bill [Gates] said no."
But China has become a more central part of the company's strategy since then. Zhang asked again. "This time it was no problem. I had to write a few mails to the CFO, to Bill and Steve [Ballmer, Microsoft chief executive]."
Microsoft is spending $300 million on the facilities.
Over the past two years, Microsoft has grown faster than ever in China, adding about 2,300 new employees in research and development. Microsoft has a total of 5,000 employees in China, including sales and marketing.
Zhang and Lee started Microsoft's Beijing research lab in 1998. Lee left for Google in a contentious split with Microsoft in 2005. Zhang says the two are still friends, but "we just don't talk business."
In addition to R&D, Microsoft sales and marketing in China fell to Zhang when Microsoft President Tim Chen left last year to head the NBA in China.
This week Zhang will host Gates for a personal visit to Beijing to watch the Olympics. After his torch run through the city Wednesday, Zhang was surrounded by excited spectators. "It was very moving," he told them with a wave and salute. "The 30 meters was short but among most memorable moments of my life," he wrote in a message to employees.
The first time Zhang watched the Olympics, in 1984, he was in Beijing sharing one TV with an entire floor of 100 graduate students. This time, he'll see events in person.
Looking back on 30 years, Zhang said political winds can come and go but China remains a society that values education, order and harmony.
"In the blood, Chinese people always respect education," he said. "People respect scholars. Confucius — that's in the veins of Chinese people."
But if not for the changes in China that made serious scholarship once again possible, "I don't know what I'm doing," he said. "Maybe I'd be a painter."
Kristi Heim: email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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