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Tiananmen activist turns software entrepreneur

May 6, 1999
Web posted at: 8:53 a.m. EDT (1253 GMT)


by Ann Harrison

(IDG) -- Software entrepreneur Chai Ling helped lead the student protest at Tiananmen Square in 1989, then lived in hiding for a year before escaping to Hong Kong -- nailed inside a wooden crate. Nine years, two Nobel Peace Prize nominations and one Harvard Business School degree later, she's trying to return to China, with an e-commerce venture designed to create a student community online, out of reach of the tanks.

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 * Fusion audio primers, her company in Cambridge, Mass., has developed a Web-based intranet application that aggregates information for college students and professors. It organizes information on class schedules, news feeds and other information chosen by students and posts it on a password-protected, personal Web site that also provides e-mail to the remote user.

The tool is being used by the Boston College Carroll School of Management. Ling is trying to partner with Internet service providers to offer content aggregation and hosting services to Chinese universities.

Q: Do you plan to go back to China?

A: I am looking forward to going back to China in the next four or five years when this generation of leaders leaves. The next generation of leaders will be much more open-minded. Back in 1989, when [President] Deng [Xiaoping] made the decision [to send troops into Tiananmen Square], it was such a tragedy because he did not understand profound changes in society.

Our generation had nothing to do with the Red Guard or the counterrevolution, but he didn't understand that. There was no free flow of information to let him know and appreciate the fruit and success of recent reform. That created tragedy in China. We hope that will be the last tragedy.

We hope that with information flow, they will be less insecure about losing control, and individuals will have more power and freedom.

Q: What can you tell us about doing business in China?

A: The biggest thing is that you have to negotiate with the whole institution, the whole system. They don't have a rule of law, so it is very difficult to do business in China and feel that property rights and intellectual property rights are protected. Every year, Microsoft loses a billion dollars because of software piracy.

The Chinese government likes to force people to do joint ventures with China and the Chinese Communist Party. I've heard horror stories about this kind of practice. The Chinese Communist Party takes all the money and sets up competing factories in the exact same business where they can take that technology and the patents and have all the control.

There is risk to doing business in China. But there is an effort to push the Chinese government to open up the system and do two simple things: free the media and create a rule of law. [That way, Chinese markets will be more attractive to] foreign companies.

Q: Why did you found

A: I felt there was no real network to support college students. Before, there were geographic, decision-making and bureaucratic barriers. Now, the Internet offers a chance to build this global network. Intercollegial relationships can be [global] relationships.

Q: But the Chinese government controls students' access to the Internet?

A: Oh yes. Right now, they are monitoring all the access to the World Wide Web and who's using it to do what. But the Internet is much more powerful, and they should give up and let the information flow.

Q: Do you think the more opportunities people have to communicate online, the more difficult it will be for Chinese authorities to monitor information?

A: Yes. Absolutely. If 1.2 billion people are all online, they are probably going to have a hard time doing that. But it still costs a couple of dollars to access [Internet provider] services on an hourly basis and for most Chinese, their average monthly salary is $15 to $20.

So that is a substantial amount of [their] income to get access to information, and they are being monitored. So we want to give away tools and find an [Internet provider] that will work with us to bring effective access.

Q: Many people in the U.S. first access the Internet at universities. Do you think that will be the case in China?

A: Yes, that is exactly why we wanted to provide tools for the college market. The kids are well-educated; they are Web-savvy; they are more used to using the Internet as a new medium; they trust it more. I want to provide applications and channels to help them organize their education and help them build community and build friendships and stay connected even when they leave college.

Whatever they want to achieve, they will be part of the larger network and stay there for a lifetime. That's our commitment to users.

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