Zhongguancun tech hub gets down to new business

For the past 20 years Chen Hongwei, 55, has gained a wealth of experience working in China’s “Silicon Valley”.

He believes the Zhongguancun technology hub in northwestern Beijing, where he has witnessed rapid development, belongs to the entire world, not just to the nation’s capital or China as a whole.

However, unlike the majority of those living and working in the area in Haidian district, Chen is neither a software engineer nor the founder of a high-tech company.

He works as an administrative officer for the government, overseeing business in a key street in Zhongguancun.

“I came to Zhongguancun in April 2000, when there were few tall buildings in the area and most people traveled by bicycle,” he said.

After graduating with a major in water supply and drainage engineering from Lanzhou Jiaotong University in Gansu province in 1985, Chen landed a job as a construction project manager in Wangfujing, the commercial center of Beijing at the time and still a major shopping area.

In search of a better and more exciting career, he applied for posts with the Haidian district government in 1999, and after passing an examination and interview, became chief engineer of China (Haidian) Book Plaza in 2000.

“I experienced the peak time at the book plaza, with a daily flow of about 100,000 customers from 2000 to 2003,” he said.

Being close to a number of higher education institutions, including Tsinghua and Peking universities, and scientific research establishments, the plaza in Zhongguancun was always crowded with students, teachers and intellectuals looking for books or electronic products.

Several book malls established in “Bookstore Street” in Zhongguancun attracted a large number of customers, many of whom stayed in the street for an entire day to select the books they wanted.

“However, after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and bookstores started to mushroom throughout Beijing, the popularity of the book plaza in Zhongguancun started to wane,” Chen said.

Another reason for the shrinking market at the plaza was the growing online book retail market established by e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Dangdang.

“At the busiest time in 2003, we had to wait half an hour for service at a restaurant at lunchtime because there was always a long line due to the popularity of the bookstores,” Chen said. “However, in 2006, daily customer flow dropped to about 5,000.”

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