There is a saying in China, 摸着石头过河, that translates to “cross the river by feeling the stones”.
It is generally attributed to Deng Xiaoping, who used it as a metaphor to describe China’s approach towards the reform and opening (改革开放) which kicked off at the end of the 1970s. On one side of the river was China’s closed, Marxist, centrally-planned economy.
On the other was an open, liberalized, market-driven one. China hadn’t crossed this river before, and so would need to do so slowly, thoughtfully and carefully, by feeling the stones.
Today, just over forty years later, it’s clear the approach has been hugely successful. So successful, in fact, that internet and software entrepreneurs across the world need to employ a similar strategy if they are to cross the river the other way, by successfully navigating the strongest cultural, linguistic, regulatory and technical rapids we’ve seen in recent years. This makes success more tenuous, but rewards perhaps more precious for those who can still find a way to incorporate the modern day Chinese behemoth into their supply chains, their user bases or their cap tables.
To that end, we were humbled to host an event at our Balderton offices recently that tried to shed light on how foreign internet entrepreneurs might best engage with China.