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Zhang Yaqin: Power of Intellect
◆Text by Huang Liwei

 October 24, 2008: Zhang Yaqin attends the China Reform and Opening-up & Enterprise Development Forum. by Duan Wei

 1978: At age 12, Zhang Yaqin was enrolled in the USTC.

 2003: Former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger visits Microsoft Research Asia. Courtesy of Microsoft (China) Co., Ltd.
I first met Zhang Yaqin in Beijing at the China Reform and Opening-up & Enterprise Development Forum held in October 2008. He seemed to be a gentle and calm person.

“In 1978, when I was 12 years old, I entered the junior class at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) as one of the first candidates for higher education reform,” he recalled.

Three decades later, he is a renowned and highly respected scientist and business leader. Today, he often appears in the media spotlight as the global vice-president of Microsoft Corporation and the chairman of Microsoft China R&D Group.

“People are most interested in my experience as a gifted junior,” Zhang said. In fact, perhaps it was the legendary college experience that made today’s Zhang, because he had applied to enter an art school in Shanxi Province before China resumed its college entrance system in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution.

“The year 1978 changed the destiny of China,” says Zhang, “and mine as well.”

The Youngest College Student

The National Science and Technology Conference, held in March 1978, transformed USTC into an institution of higher education as famous as Peking University and Tsinghua University. Under the proposal of such noted scientists as Tsung-Dao Lee, Chen-Ning Yang and Samuel Chao Chung Ting, USTC organized a class to enroll gifted juniors. Zhang was one of those outstanding students.

In 1966, he was born into a well-educated family. His father died when Zhang was five years of age, and his mother and grandmother taught him to be independent and determined. As a child, he showed great interest in mathematics and the natural sciences. He read many books, far beyond the number of average children his age.

Thanks to his studious nature and intelligence, Zhang skipped several grade levels. At age 11, he was already a third-year middle school student.

In 1977, 13-year-old Ning Bo was enrolled in USTC, and this generated much interest in gifted children. Zhang was determined to also excel. In the summer of 1978, 12-year-old Zhang attended college entrance examinations as one of 6 million examinees.

Those examinees spanned a wide range of ages. Many were in their 30s, and some even had children older than Zhang.

Zhang earned full marks in the mathematics examination and was admitted into the junior class of the USTC. That year he was the nation’s youngest college student.

Return to Homeland

Many like Zhang, who benefited from China’s resumption of college entrance examinations, led similar sorts of life: studying and working abroad, and developing elite careers in varying professions. Among them are composer Tan Dun and economist Zhang Weiying.

In 1986, Zhang went to Washington, D.C. to study at George Washington University.

Zhang took advantage of many opportunities to apply his theoretical knowledge in the United States. “Suddenly I could do what I liked to do,” he said. “What I was engaged were closely associated with my theoretical research. I was very happy.”

In 1997, when he was 31 years old, Zhang was named as a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), becoming the youngest scientist to win this honor in IEEE’s 100-year history.

“Though I’ve long been engaged in research work, I’m still an emotional person. I continued to read People’s Daily overseas edition during my 13-year stay in the United States. From the bottom of my heart, I was eager to return to my motherland,” Zhang said.

So Zhang immediately accepted Li Kaifu’s invitation to establish Microsoft Research China. At the end of 1998, Microsoft Research China was officially established as Microsoft’s second overseas research institute.

In the beginning the institute comprised just a handful of staff members. One decade later, its successor, Microsoft China R&D Group, has 3,000 employees and is the largest comprehensive research institute established by a multinational company in China. Zhang is the one who made this happen.

On November 13, 2008, Microsoft appointed Simon L. K. Leung, former president of Motorola Asia and chairman of Motorola China, as chairman and CEO for Microsoft Greater China. Zhang Yaqin, former acting CEO for Microsoft Greater China, has since put his heart and sole into his work with Microsoft China R&D Group.

This was what Zhang desired because R&D was his favorite work. “Let Chinese intellectual energy benefit the world. This is what I’ve always dreamed,” he said.

Since his admission into the USTC, Zhang has followed the motto: Try, perhaps you’ll fail; but never try, you’ll definitely fail.


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