Red Star

Huang Guoping

An engineer wins hearts and minds

Village House

A sense of stoicism is admired in Chinese culture. Take the expression chiku, which translates as “eating bitterness”, suggesting that hardships are meant to be endured without complaint.

Huang Guoping, who experienced a series of challenges in his early life before ending up as a top AI scientist at Tencent has been held up as a symbol of this indomitable spirit. Huang’s life story, which was partially recounted in the acknowledgement section of his PhD thesis, has made headlines across the country.

Who is he?

Born in 1987 Huang hails from a remote village in Sichuan province (see photo above of his rustic home). His mother left the family behind when he was 12, while his dad was too busy making a living to take much care of him.

His main caregiver – his grandmother – died when he was 17. His father died that same year in a car accident.

“Doing homework or reading under a kerosene lamp in the evening gave me the biggest happiness. If it rained, my nighttime activity was patching the ceiling with bamboo shoots to prevent water seepage,” Huang recalled, remembering that his main source of income before high school came from selling the eels and fish that he caught and the piglets that he raised.

“My feet have trodden all the paddy fields and river banks within 10 kilometres of my house. There were times when I fell into the water trying to flee ferocious dogs and snakes or had to go home without any light because my torch was filled with water. Sometimes the eels that I caught were stolen by my dad and swapped for meat and wine, leaving me with nothing to pay my tuition bills,” he recalled.

Huang said that if it were not for his academic scholarships – which came in the forms of cash and certificates of recognition – he would have given up studying long ago.

When he was at high school, new educational policies such as tuition fee exemptions for poorer rural students changed his life. Huang later studied computer science at Southwest University in Chongqing and was recommended for and accepted for a doctoral programme at the Institute of Automation under the University of the Chinese Academy of Science. Since 2017 he has been working in Tencent’s artificial intelligence labs as a senior researcher, focusing on natural language processing and machine translation.

“I have a simple belief, which is to complete my studies and see the world,” said Huang.

Why is he in the news?

Huang became an online sensation when the acknowledgement section of his thesis was leaked onto the internet. It thanked the many people who had helped him over his life and career. Netizens were overwhelmingly impressed, with state media grabbing the chance to highlight the importance of educational opportunity.

“To enable every rural child to receive fair and quality education, and prevent intergenerational transmission of poverty, is a serious undertaking that we have to work on now for the future,” Xinhua urged.

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