How digital tech changes life experience in China
On June 20, Henry Huiyao Wang, Founder and President of the Center for China and Globalization, moderated a panel discussion in the 2023 Future Close-Up Forum organized by China International Communications Group and Tencent, the Chinese technology giant.
The forum is the culmination of a week-long trip - part of the Tencent-sponsored THINC Fellowship Program - by 16 young foreigners to China, where they shared their experience with Chinese experts and audience.
Below are some tidbits from the forum.
Clarence LING Chun-kit, Co-Founder of Ztore.com, Hong Kong's first online grocery specialist:
Growing up as a Hong Kong person, growing up in Hong Kong before the handover back to China and after the handover to China, it's really shocking for us Hong Kong people. And just coincidentally, in 1997 I went to the US for high school and then went to Carnegie Mellon University and then you know surrounded by all the Computer Science programmers and everything. And back then I guess China was still a bit behind but you started seeing a lot of mainland Chinese students studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon University as well. And then I graduated in 2005, went back to Hong Kong, and basically didn't really want to do anything. And just so happened, you know, I got the opportunity to start in 2009, 2010, started helping actually traditional businesses in mainland China, both family businesses and state-owned enterprises go overseas. In 2013, I helped Wanda Group of China make their first acquisition which was a 320 million pound acquisition of Sunseeker Yacht which was then UK's biggest yacht maker. And then since then, I started learning about tech startups.
And it was 2013 beginning. It was the beginning of 2013. And then I started investing in different startups, you know, learn about technology through investing. I invested in companies like Didi, Huolala, Tuhu Yangche, companies like Baihang Zhengxin, and stuff like that. And then through that, I got to see a lot of technology being used in different industries, in different aspects of our daily lives. And in 2015, I just had a sudden thought and started creating my own e-commerce company with two of my friends. And it was really tough because back in 2015, you know, mainland China was already... e-commerce industry was already flourishing. And huge competition. And no one was doing anything about e-commerce or digitalization in Hong Kong. And it got me thinking, you know, one country, two systems.
But at the same time, it was really tough as well for startups in Hong Kong. So back then we started doing everything from scratch. Learning how to pick and pack in the warehouse. Learning how to, you know, refine the process of delivery. And the only way we could learn was, you know, to come back to mainland China. And then visiting different e-commerce companies. You know, basically, just learn and went to their warehouses and started to, you know, just grab all these experts and started learning, you know, at no cost, basically. And it was tough, you know, because Hong Kong as a market, it's very different from anywhere else in mainland China. You know, be it rental, office rentals, warehouse rentals, salaries, stuff like that. And the whole economics is different for e-commerce businesses. And the culture, the buying culture, and everything was different.
So, going forward, speed up and talk about opportunities in the Greater Bay Area. It's really exciting. To me, especially the digital era. Where I think with the digital infrastructure that, you know, our country, especially the Greater Bay Area, infrastructures like high-speed rail, bridges, the Macau, Hong Kong and Guangdong Bridge pull everyone together.
And the special thing about the Greater Bay Area is, you know, it's one country, three systems. The amount of opportunities, the imagination is - the sky is the limit. Anywhere, anyone from anywhere in the world can come. There's got to be something that you like, right, and suitable for you. So I'm very excited, you know, going forward in terms of how to use what our country, China as a whole, has learned in the past 15, 20 years. And basically exporting that and work together with other developing countries into developing how they wanted to develop their countries to be, you know.
Patrick Jack Robertson, CEO of Smart Air:
For me, my journey in China actually started 10 years ago. I traveled in China, and at that point, there was no WeChat Pay, or at least I didn't have it. I remember using, 一毛钱 [ten cents of yuan], 一分钱 [one cent of yuan], I had that amount of money. So I was introduced to China then, but China to me was really interesting. It was about discovering, and I could see the rise of China, so I thought, this is a place I want to be a part of to help grow and see how I can contribute in the environmental sector.
So I moved to China 8 years ago, and I've been living in Beijing since, and running Smart Air, a social enterprise focusing on air quality and environmental issues. And even just those 2 or 3 years between when I first came, and when I came back, WeChat Pay had launched. You know, train tickets initially, you had to, as a foreigner, you had to queue for about an hour in the train station to pick up your ticket, and it was a pain, a real big pain. And now, you can just buy it online, and I can use my passport. So just in these 8 years of me being in China, I've seen this whole interconnected kind of economy just develop and grow. And to be honest, I got used to it. I got used to using DiDi, I got used to using xiaohuangche [the little yellow bike, meaning Meituan’s bike-sharing service], all of this. And this trip actually has reminded me of welcoming people who have been to China for the first time, who are coming to China for the first time, and seeing their reactions to this, and it's reminded me, wow, just how actually impressive this is.
Because I think all of us, me, myself, and the Chinese, we're used to this now, and we don't realize actually how amazing it is. So for Smart Air, it's really helped us develop. We started in Beijing 9 years ago, and we're now present in 14 countries. So we started as a social enterprise here, and we've been able to grow and expand overseas using these digital platforms. I think the pandemic has really accelerated this, things like Tencent, Voov, and Tencent Meeting, these things have really enabled us to, we don't need to be in the same office anymore. We've actually, during the pandemic, started a team, we now have people in Chengdu, Shandong, Suzhou, these places, instead of having to have them in the office here, which is lowering our costs in terms of Beijing rents are very expensive, in terms of travel times between these places, it's really enabled us to grow and then also connect internationally as well.
José Carlos Feliciano Moreira, Deputy Director, Center for China and Asia-Pacific Studies, Pacific University, Peru:
I work for a research center. I would say probably one of the few research centers in Latin America that has a specific focus in China and the Asia-Pacific region. So we try to study China from different perspectives and different research lines. Including, let's say, infrastructure, Yidaiyilu (Belt and Road Initiative), Chinese economy, China in the world. And of course, one of our main lines is innovation and technology in China. So for instance, we study on how innovation can create resilience in firms in order to gain more market share.
Or for instance, what is the role of digitalization in transferring, let's say, the informal economy to the formal economy. Especially because we want to learn these specific issues because, for instance, the economies in Latin America, and I would say in Peru, 70% of them are informal economies. So there are many, many learning lessons that we can take from China. And one of the key aspects of this trip was for me to learn more about it. That's from the institutional side. From a personal side, I'm also like Patrick, I have lived in China before. I think the first time I came to China was in 2009. So right away I came, I need to create my QQ number, right?
Then after that I need to create my Xiaonei account, then my Renren, then my Weibo account, and then my WeChat account. So I think that's one of the, if I need to summarize, one of the key aspects of Chinese digital economy is the rapid growth and the progress. And so let's say since 2017 I come to China often. And I was also very surprised because every year or every month there is a new feature in WeChat, right?
There are new functions in WeChat. And this also is very connected with the fact that Chinese applications and Chinese economies are always evolving in order to provide a better life, of course, and improve the society in a more efficient way. And I think, at least from this experience, one of the main aspects that I was impressed is how digitalization is used for philanthropy. And the applications and of course the projects of Tencent charity were really impactful and really have, I would say, a great impact on me in terms of trying to learn more about these models and try to, let's say, get some lessons in order to bring them back home, right? Studying them and also try to come up with some suggestions maybe for, as well, the policy makers in my country in order to prove that.
Zhang Weiwei, Dean of China Institute, Fudan University:
The three gentlemen made very good presentations. And their experience and their exposure to the Chinese digital economy shows that they have really grown and have been growing with China's growth in digital economy. That's really exciting. It's changing so fast. Full of challenges, there are so many opportunities. And in the case with José Carlos, I'm really amazed because you came from a Chinese point of view, distant land, from Peru, all the way to China, and then you run this center and try to understand China, Chinese experience of modernization. That's really very much appreciated. And for Patrick, I think your contribution is also impressive because obviously you sense this fast progress in the Chinese digital technology, yet it poses some difficulties for foreigners as well. Yet you turn these difficulties into opportunities. That's wonderful.
I think this is very much a part of Chinese culture. All you know, maybe by now, the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two words. One is danger and the other is opportunities. And the danger, the greater danger is more opportunities you have. So this is a very dialectical view, which is helpful. Mr. Ling, I'm really struck by your last point concerning your role in this Great Bay Area.
Here it comes with my idea of civilizational state. Don't treat China just as a single monolithic state. No, it's not the case. China is made up of different provinces, regions. In historical terms, it's a product of hundreds of states, if not more, amalgamated into one with its long history. A typical guy from Shanghai, from Guangdong, or from Beijing, in fact, differ from each other in terms of life habit, way of thinking. And even you look at the linguistic structure, if you look at local dialects, not Mandarin, their differences, in fact, are bigger than a typical British, a typical French, and a typical German.
Yet all these Chinese from different parts of China live together for thousands of years on the roof of one civilization. So this diversity is exciting. It really drives us to learn from each other, benefit from each other. For instance, you mentioned the Great Bay Area. If you know something about China, at least at this stage, you have to know one is Beijing, Tianjin, this huge area around Beijing. And the other is Great Bay Area, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Guangzhou. And the other is Shanghai, Yangtze River Delta.
Each is a huge economy. I just checked this morning the figure for the Yangtze Delta River around Shanghai. It's already an economy larger than Germany and Japan by official statistics. So any of our foreign friends, young people, who try to work eventually in China or have to do with China, you have to learn this diversity of China, the differences within China, yet this commonality and shared civilization, that makes your work and your life really both materially rewarding and intellectually rewarding and stimulating. Thank you.
Later in the forum, Dr. Igor Alexander Bello Tasic, member of the World Economic Forum's Digital Leaders Network, added:
I come from Spain, but I'm also originally from Brazil. And when I first moved to Spain back in 2008, my wife is a professor in telecommunications engineering, and one of her colleagues asked me if in Brazil we had supermarkets. I said, not only that, we have hypermarkets. So in terms of products, I think that this idea of blending technologies that I see here, I was even interviewed before, I think is unique to the way technology has evolved in China.
So I think, particularly I work with things related to the metaverse and whatever that is or will be, I think things that connect both, not only virtual reality, augmented reality, but IoT, the whole sensors, the whole idea of smart cities connected with infrastructure that we have fully deployed in this country that nowhere else in the world we have like this at this scale, can uniquely allow China to create blended products, technological products that can be huge in transforming the way we live.
I think WeChat is, the way I see it, beyond an app, it's almost a lifestyle that integrates different parts of your life into one technological experience. So if we can move beyond the software, but also with the hardware, with sensors, that I think would be great and China is uniquely positioned for that. And I think maybe that encompasses, I think, a lot of products, but maybe a second one would be more related to really kind of education. I don't know how to put that, but again, the work ethic that you have here, this deeply embedded innovation and entrepreneurial mindset, I think when you blend with, again, with technology, you can be Laotians of the world in many ways, but not from a top-down perspective, you should do this, but in the way that you've been doing for millennia, which is collaborating. So educational services and products that bring that together, that I see the world desperately needing and I think could blend well with the way things are evolving here.
In a speech shortly ahead of the panel discussion, Zhang Weiwei, the Fudan academic, explained what he thinks drives the digital economy in China:
The state sector and private sector also complement with each other. Again, let's look at the digital economy. Why China is the only country with one smartphone you can do everything? For instance, most people here have never used a wallet for five years or six years. You can do everything. Because the infrastructure is built by the state sector. Highways, bullet trains, 4G, 5G networks across the country, wherever you go. So you can use Alipay or Tencent Pay, whatever. The theory is very simple. You can go wherever in China. From Beijing to Himalaya, to any village you can pay. No doubt about this. You can watch videos in the mountainous areas. This whole infrastructure is built by the state sector. Then Tencent, Alibaba, and other companies, Huawei, private companies, become very successful in promoting all these services for Chinese people. And that balance between the three powers, political power, social power, and power of capital, in favor of the vast majority of the population. That's the key difference between the Chinese model and the American model, I should say this way.
In other words, most people can benefit from the process of development. And this is very, very important. And then, if you, like most Chinese here, who have lived here over the past two decades, three decades, or even four decades, or even longer, what I describe China's rise or modernization as, you experience four industrial revolutions in one. Roughly, China missed the first two industrial revolutions due to historical reasons. But then, since 1978, roughly every ten years, you experience one industrial revolution. From textile revolution to power industrial revolution, manufacturing industrial revolution, and then the southern industrial revolution, China began to catch up telecommunications.
With regard to the standard of 2G, no Chinese standard. 3G, Chinese standard, but very small in scale. 4G, 50-50, Chinese and non-Chinese. And 5G, Huawei is the leader. And in 6G it is also a leader.
So this is really a typical case of how China moving from backward to up in the level chain and catching up. And then, now China and United States are two countries in the forefront here of the fourth industrial revolution, where the big data, AI, quantum technologies, etc.
So that's very important - you have lived in China like any Chinese who is, say, 25 years or above or 30 years and above. You've gone through this from agricultural civilization to industrial civilization to information civilization in one go. (Enditem)