It's been nearly 20 years since Shen Tong gained international notice as a student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests. He's now president of VFinity, a company he founded in New York City that offers a Web-based content management and collaboration platform for video, audio, and text.
Photograph by Sacha Lecca Shen Tong
President Of VFinity
Interview by Mary Hayes Weier
After escaping China a week after the protests turned bloody in 1989, Shen Tong studied biology at Brandeis University, then political philosophy at Harvard and sociology at Boston University. He still talks like a political activist. The best thing about the Web 2.0 movement, he says, is that it fosters Net democratization. "What YouTube and Wikipedia have proven is that the collective volunteerism online can not only generate a great body of information faster, it can self-correct."
Shen Tong still is outspoken about his homeland, particularly about Internet censorship and Yahoo's decision in 2005 to turn over information that the Chinese government used to imprison a journalist for leaking government secrets. "Any technology--search engines, content management--provides the building blocks of a great society, except when it's mis- used. There are bullet makers, and executioners who shoot people with the bullets. It's the responsibility of technology innovators and vendors to keep that in mind."
Too many businesses are stuck in a hierarchy that limits their success. "The more aware and active CIOs and decision makers are of the power of the volunteerism of their community, starting with their staff and extending to their customers, the more power they have. And the better off they are facing the competition."
VFinity outsources software development to China, but Shen Tong says the country has a way to go before it can be a significant force in the global tech industry. "One thing we have to learn not just from China, but from all police state societies, is all the favorable combinations don't automatically make democratization happen the next day." That's why engaging China in business is so important.
Shen Tong has published a memoir, Almost A Revolution (University of Michigan, 1998), as well as fiction, and he's trying his hand at screenplays. A common theme in his work is self-image and the question of identity. "If you wake a person up in the middle of the night and ask who they are, I wonder if they can answer that question."
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