Go East, Young Man

Bo Feng, 32, is an unlikely mogul of the Internet age. He was born in China and didn't use a telephone until he was 14. A decade ago he worked in Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area while studying to be an art-film director. Then, through a friend, he met Silicon Valley power broker Sandy Robertson, cofounder of the investment bank Robertson Stephens. Feng convinced Robertson that despite his lack of business experience, his knowledge of China's culture would make him useful to American moneymen looking for a toehold in the world's most populous market. In the blink of an Internet minute, Feng was transformed from dumpling dispenser to venture capitalist.

He quickly became part of a cohort of young Chinese-born, American-educated friends who've spent the last few years flying between San Francisco and Shanghai, trying to launch the Chinese equivalents of Yahoo, eBay and Microsoft. In the process, they hope to transplant the Valley's entrepreneurial magic to their homeland. And for the last several years they've taken journalist David Sheff along for the ride.

The result is "China Dawn" (301 pages. HarperBusiness. $26.95), an engaging look at how the Net revolution is playing out in a nation where the rules of capitalism don't apply. The new book centers on Feng, who worked for Robertson and other employers before launching his own venture-capital firm in 1999. Sheff, who has written for Wired and Vanity Fair, accompanied Feng as he plotted mergers, sized up potential CEOs and listened to start-ups pitch for seed money.

At times it seems like the characters are learning to play basketball in a world without gravity. How do you do e-commerce in a country where few consumers have credit cards? How do you measure returns without standardized accounting? How do you devise exit strategies in a market with no well-trod route to an IPO? Since China's Net revolution is a work in process, the book lacks a crisp resolution; by the end it's not clear which (if any) of these characters might become China's Bill Gates. But it does contain some dramatic moments, particularly after America's Internet bubble pops and Feng and his partner convert from cheerleaders to taskmasters, forcing their companies to drill down on costs and find a road toward profitability.

During a visit with NEWSWEEK last month, Sheff described how he came to write the book. Sheff, whose wife once baby-sat for Feng's wife, had known Feng for years, but had never thought of writing about his friend until an editor urged him to try it. During his career Sheff had interviewed scores of American high-tech executives and grown jaded by their predictable talk of how their new search engine or handheld would change the world. In contrast, Feng and his Chinese expat friends were doing something truly revolutionary, Sheff says. After watching the uprising in Tiananmen Square from thousands of miles away, they decided to forgo a potentially lucrative life in the United States to go home. "They returned to China to try to make a difference, to try to make opportunities for the Chinese people," says Sheff, who's so taken with Feng's efforts that he's invested in Feng's fund (a fact disclosed in the book).

You can't help but come away from the book rooting for Feng and his friends. And their goals are audacious. In one scene, Feng and his partner, Eric Li, receive a call telling them Yale University has decided to invest $10 million in their fund. Driving down Highway 101 in the Valley, they dream out loud of when their firm, Chengwei, will be as prominent as the American venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins. "I'll be Kleiner and you'll be Perkins," Li says. "No, I want to be Kleiner and you can be Perkins," Feng says. They're not there yet. But as the dawn of China's Internet revolution gives way to midday, they'd seem to stand a reasonable chance of succeeding.