Crazy Work Hours and Lots of Cameras: Silicon Valley Goes to China

One Chinese technology executive said he worked 14 to 15 hours a day at least six days a week. Another said he worked every waking hour and forced himself to watch movies to relax.

The reaction from a group of Silicon Valley executives: Wow.

“We’re so lazy in the U.S.!” blurted Wesley Chan, a venture capital investor, on the first day of what would be a weeklong journey into the Chinese technology scene.

Work habits weren’t the only sharp difference between the Valley and China. By the end of the week, a group of American executives and investors found an alternate tech universe. It resembles Silicon Valley superficially. Look closer, and it becomes a futuristic yet closed-off world that can be equally impressive, alienating and dystopian.

“China’s internet is a walled garden,” Mr. Chan said. “No one can break in unless you’re from here.”

“The U.S. competitive edge over China may not be long,” Kai-Fu Lee, chief executive of Sinovation Ventures and former head of Google China, told them. “In fact,” he added, “the Americans now have the information disadvantage.”

But it was also obvious to the group what China was missing. For starters, everybody is Chinese. Even in its early days, Google had employees from 39 nationalities speaking 40-plus languages.

“China is a bit homogeneous,” said Mr. Chan, an early Google employee. “You don’t find as much the perspectives of the world here compared to Silicon Valley.”

Then there are the work schedules. The Silicon Valley natives were introduced to the Chinese start-up concept of 996: Work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Once they got over their shock, they had to ask: Does that punishing schedule make sense?

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