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How Zhang Xin Transformed China

· Real Estate,Urban Planning,British Education,Design Thinking,Tech Elite

In 2003, before I would leave for grad school in London, I was hanging out with the founders of Hot or Not at a Ryze network event in San Francisco. Ryze is a social networking site that launched before Facebook, and was popular amongst the San Francisco tech circle. My friends and I were commenting on a particular social profile of another woman who was on the Network, who was from an investment banking background and a Harvard alumni, and I’ll never forget what she had written; she was someone “who loved money, worshipped money, loved counting money, even rolled around and would sleep with money on her bed”. We all laughed at the flagrant avarice and absurdity of the person’s profile but this was the kind of mindset that would begin to dominate the Californian landscape in the coming years.

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American education and media have been criticised for teaching young people to worship money.

When I left for grad school in the UK, I had to unlearn how to do many things that was primarily shaped by my education in the United States. There is something particularly unique about a British education that is different from education in the rest of the world. With a long history of the Socratic method of analysis and debate, British education asks you to question tradition and rules, and explore new ways of understanding our contemporary world.

One of the things I learned very early on was to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure what that means”. American culture often shame people if they don’t know something, or have an answer for something, and many people develop an imposter syndrome as a consequence. Whereas, I noticed many of my American peers from the east and west coasts attempting to “BS” their way through debate and get very angry when faced with criticism or opposition, I adapted very quickly to the British way of debate, which was to listen, not interrupt the speaker with “buts”, and then ask questions. British professors and tutors I found respected those people who would say that they did not know something or did not have enough information to come to an opinion about something, instead of the typical American way of using key phrases and trend-setting words in order to sound “smart”. “BS ing” doesn’t get anyone anywhere in the UK, as people tended to see through the pomp and circumstance, and instead, there was a return to questioning assumptions with an overlap of theories. There were no multiple choice tests, there was no “right” answer or a push towards sycophancy of the administration or political correctness, as long as ideas were carefully researched and pondered upon, people tended to respect those with differing opinions. There is a kind of philanthropy, community and humility inherent in British education and showing off and celebrity worship is often looked down upon.

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Open Crits at Barlett School of Architecture at University College London. Weekly crits are a regular part of British education, in which students discuss and assess their work-in-progress. Design thinking is an active part of all British education, from art, social sciences to technology.

During my education in England, I had to unlearn the habits of arrogance, boasting and showing off that are so commonplace at American schools. Instead, I learned to be patient, to be an active listener, poke fun at myself and to be open to criticism and differing opinions. In America, politics divides people. People take sides as either liberals or conservatives and violent clashes commonly end up as a result. In England, everyone questions their own party, and no one is a blind follower to any political organisation. Whereas, conformity of thought is often the norm in America, the opposite is true in the UK.

In our generation, I think people are too easily impressed by money and strive towards self-exploitation in a pursuit of money during an era of reality television, social media oversharing and celebrity founder worship, and a lot of these cultural norms were reinforced by our American education.

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Zhang Xin, co-founder and CEO of SOHO China

Zhang Xin (pronounced Chang Shin) is an extraordinary woman of our times who has been credited as “the woman who built Beijing”. She grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, and worked in a sweatshop factory for five years before embarking on an education in the United Kingdom. However, Zhang Xin is probably relatively unknown in the United States during an era when male founders are often held in high regard despite the fact that she is one of the few self-made female billionaires of our era. However, her goal was never about money, but about changing the landscape of China.

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Alongside the Great Wall of China, Zhang Xin invited 12 unknown architects to design the iconic buildings that would become part of the rolling landscape.

Surrounded by the depressing, grey concrete buildings of communism all her life, the architecture of the UK and Europe inspired her. Her education in the UK, first at the University of Sussex, then at Cambridge University, instilled in her a deep sense of philanthropy and way of thinking that differed from what was happening in Asia at the time - which was opening its doors to the West, but still had a philosophy of short-term profit and thinking. While others were erecting cheaply constructed buildings in a record amount of time in order to increase short-term profits while also raising the price of rent, Zhang Xin did something else; she incorporated design thinking, hired emerging, unknown architects, launched beautiful buildings, and she also lowered the rent to make office spaces affordable for new companies, incorporated short-term leases and shared office space for startups.

“Architecture records the culture of our times.” - Zhang Xin

Zhang Xin realised that what we build would last longer than us, and that it was her long-term vision that was able to bystep the cronyism and corruption inherent in China to be able to launch real estate projects that would capture the imaginations of the people around her. In 1995, after she launched her real estate company SOHO China along with her co-founder husband, she invited 12 unknown architects to design a series of buildings near the Great Wall of China in 2002, which began her career trajectory as the woman who would build Beijing.

This was around the same time that I would begin my education in the UK and had to unlearn a lot of things that I had been conditioned throughout my education in the US in which being competitive and cutthroat was commonplace.

“People spoke crassly, treated others badly, looked down on the poor and adored the rich...The investment banking community was competitive and cutthroat and I was always looking for opportunities to leave.” - Zhang Xin about working at Goldman Sachs in New York City. 

In a 1989 speech on administration goals before a joint session on Congress, President George H. W. Bush said: “To those men and women in business, remember the ultimate end of your work: to make a better product, to create better lives. I ask you to plan for the longer term and avoid that temptation of quick and easy paper profits.”

I think what President Bush said in 1989 is particularly relevant in our current era, as we see the changing landscape of the United States, the predatory real estate practices in major urban centres, the dilapidated state of our public transportation, and much of the land becoming depleted by animal farming and the fracking industries and the dominance of cheaply built towers such as the disastrous Millennium Tower and widespan expansion of “luxury” condos in order to increase short-term profit. It has been visibly apparent that there is a lack of design thinking and innovative architectural and energy projects in the United States.

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Billionaire tech investors in San Francisco donated to a ballot in 2016 to purge the homeless from San Francisco. The city would give homeless people 24 hours to relocate to a shelter (which are all overpopulated with no space) or accept a bus ticket out of town. To America's embarrassment, the tech capital of the United States is also home to an increasing number of homeless people who had been evicted due to the inflation of real estate prices as unicorn companies made their headquarters in the SF Bay Area.

We are so focused on the quick short-term profits of predatory real estate practices, blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and more useless apps to record our every thought and behaviour, but there are no startups thinking long-term about what it means to live in America - to launch beautiful buildings made to withstand the test of time, to conserve our ecology, to inspire people, and to create better lives for all, not just for the tech elite.

I often think about education, and what a privilege it is in our era to be able to attend university, and I think if Zhang Xin hadn’t been educated in the UK, and hadn’t studied at Cambridge University, I don’t think she would be the woman she is today. While it could be argued that much of US education teaches us to prioritise money, UK education teaches us to prioritise people.