Edward Tian vividly remembers how, as a five-year-old in Shenyang in 1968, he was not allowed to wear one of the Mao badges popular during the Cultural Revolution. He came from a family that had been wealthy intellectuals before the founding of the People's Republic of China. So he and the grandparents who raised him while his mother and father worked as scientists in China's western deserts were ostracized. Red Guards burned the family library. Those experiences "gave me a feeling of strong rebellion," says Tian.
Fortunately for Tian, that feeling is now serving him well. He's playing a key role in transforming China's stodgy state economy--first by building one of China's strongest Internet infrastructure companies, and now by shaking up the telecom sector as head of China NetCom Corp.
Tian, who studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, was fascinated by the spread of personal computers in Beijing's university district in the 1980s. He went on to Texas Tech University in 1987 for his PhD. There he was first exposed to the Internet--and recognized its importance. "I felt this to be a fundamental, profound technology," says Tian. "I told my friends we can't miss this chance" to be part of bringing the technology to China.
So finally, Tian, along with another Chinese student in Texas, returned to Beijing in 1993 and founded AsiaInfo, a company providing infrastructure solutions and software products for China's booming Internet sector. But just before AsiaInfo listed on Nasdaq a year ago, Tian, eager to play a role in reforming China's telecom sector, left the company for a new position as CEO of NetCom, China's newest telecom player. In accepting an 85% pay cut at his new job, Tian also demanded--and won--the right to have control over hiring and firing. That's rare even for a CEO in China's state sector, where political concerns often determine staffing. With 320 employees already working at NetCom headquarters, Tian plans to hire 700 more by yearend to meet the company's ambitious goals of laying 8,000 kilometers of fiber-optic cable by December.
Just as important, Tian has a license to operate an international gateway for China's Internet and hopes to expand into traditional telecom service. NetCom can then be a tougher competitor to monopoly China Telecom. "I'm a true believer in competition," says Tian. "Only with competition can China build modern enterprises." Plans call for NetCom to seek dual listings on Nasdaq and in Hong Kong next year. "I want to prove to the outside world that in China, we can build a new-generation company," he says. Tian certainly has a good shot.