China is shaping the future of global tech

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week there were so many exhibitors from China — a third of the 4,500 total — some delegates joked that CES now stands for “China Electronics Show”.

Through its upstream position in the supply chain, the country has a long-established role in global tech. But it is no longer a mere supplier of components or assembler of the devices on display at shows like CES. Chinese tech companies are increasingly winning with their own products. Shenzhen-based DJI is the dominant global producer of drones. GoPro, which relied on contract manufacturers in China, has just grounded its last drone model, the unfortunately named Karma.

Yet the value in tech these days is increasingly in services and content, not devices themselves. Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have a combined market value of $2.8tn, far exceeding any pure hardware seller.

Here, too, China is catching up. Chinese internet leaders Tencent and Alibaba have a combined valuation of $1tn. Add in another $200bn or so for Baidu, JD.com and Netease plus other listed or unlisted companies, such as Toutiao, Meituan and Didi, and the scale of the Chinese market becomes apparent. Trends emerging in China are beginning to shape the future of the global tech landscape. To its dominant role in the supply chain we can now add a “demand chain” aspect to the country.

US tech titans are already global companies. But Chinese companies are just beginning to look abroad. Last week, ride-sharing business Didi acquired 99 in Brazil, crimping fellow group Uber’s prospects in the country. Both Alibaba and Tencent are investing significant sums in India, ramping up pressure on Amazon.

To its dominant role in the supply chain we can now add a ‘demand chain’ aspect to the country

Not that China itself is short of growth. Massive investments in mobile broadband and a highly competitive handset market means that nearly all of China’s approximately 750m internet users use smartphones. Payments via QR codes, led by Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay, are making cash obsolete. Dockless bikes line the streets of Chinese cities. The country’s physical infrastructure — roads, high-speed trains and airports — are facilitating as big a boost to consumption as President Eisenhower’s roll out of the Interstate Highway System in the US in the 1950s.

I have lived in Beijing for more than 20 years, yet only in the past year have I felt on returning to London or Silicon Valley that I’m going backwards in time. For urban residents, China is increasingly a study in frictionless living. Hopping on a bike, ordering a meal from a huge range of restaurants, paying for utilities, transferring money to friends — all can be done at the touch of a button. Internet services in the west offer increasing convenience no doubt — but nothing beats the experience in China.

Why such rapid growth? Intense competition between the country’s internet companies is one reason. The rapid embrace by Chinese consumers of the new is another: few cling to a past where shops were crowded, taxis hard to hail, banks a waiting room hell. Convenience is the new religion in China.

Critics contend that Chinese internet companies are merely hothouse flowers, thriving only as a result of the Great Firewall of China (GFC) acting as a greenhouse. Google, Facebook, Twitter and others are indeed blocked, making China’s modernity seem hollow at times.

Would tearing down the wall make any difference to the prospects for US internet companies? For Google, it could. Savvy internet users in China use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access its services; not so much for Facebook, however, as Tencent’s WeChat has essentially removed the need. Amazon is a bit player in China. By contrast, Apple has been hugely successful, its integrated hardware/content model generating billions of dollars a year.

In Washington, the drumbeat of protectionism is getting louder, blocking Huawei from selling phones to AT&T and Alibaba-affiliate Ant Financial from buying money transfer company MoneyGram. Security concerns are cited. Both governments have been involved in skulduggery in recent years to gather each other’s secrets, not to mention China’s targeting of corporate intellectual property in the US.

Erecting barriers to trade and investment is a risky move for the US. Chinese companies can help make technology more affordable in America, as it slips down the league of internet speeds and affordability. US tech companies need China’s scale to help make and deploy emerging technologies at home, as the recent deal between Facebook and Xiaomi for Oculus VR headsets shows.

As both countries look to artificial intelligence, China’s role as a living laboratory is even more important. Silicon Valley companies, including Google, which just announced an AI lab in Beijing, are well aware of this. Whether the US government, which is already restricting visas for qualified researchers, will help or hinder their innovations remains to be seen.

The writer is chairman of BDA China and author of ‘Alibaba — The House That Jack Ma Built’

This article has been edited since publication to reflect the fact it is the US government seeking to restrict visas not China

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