As the world’s most populous nation and second largest economy, not a day goes by in China without its fair share of ground-breaking technology innovation. Yet, obsessed as we are with our own navels, we in the West rarely take the time to analyse and process what little information we may gather in between Trump-bashing sessions (Or Biden if you're reading this after January 2021). Fear not, The Pourquoi Pas is here to help: below is all you need to avoid the usual stereotypical platitudes at your next international dinner party.
1. Dominance of Tech Entrepreneurship
A few years ago, “Chinese innovation” mainly meant copycats and counterfeits. No more (ish). As of December 2020, China holds five spots out of ten on the world’s most valuable unicorns’ list (ByteDance, Didi Chuxing, Kuaishou, Yuanfudao and DJI Innovations: shout-out if you can tell me what they do without using Google) and accounts for 33% of the list’s combined valuation, as opposed to 1 spot and 28% just 5 years prior. China is now home to 122 unicorns out of 515 worldwide, many of which operate in fertile fields such as medical tech, A.I., transportation, retail and the internet of things.
The driving force behind these changes is an audacious, talented and globally minded generation of entrepreneurs. They are propped up by 3 macrotrends:
The Chinese economy is large enough to let firms attain massive scale just by operating at home. It helps that the country is more homogeneous than Europe and that its infrastructures (such as roads and wireless broadband) are modern and regularly improved, unlike in America.
Chinese shoppers are curious and risk-prone, an advantage to innovators with clever products but unfamiliar brands. They are also unusually eager to embrace technology (especially fintech and mobile tech), leading to healthier competition. Chinese consumers are fast-evolving, try everything, and move quickly.
State-dominated industries ranging from telecommunications and banking to health care are woefully inefficient and even hostile to consumers (I’ll let you draw the parallels to the U.S in your own time…). This leaves enough room for agile tech entrepreneurs to fill in the gaps.
There are however a handful of risks factors that could spoil the party, such as a potential sharp recession or a financial crisis spurred by bad debt. Any of these two could lead to a panicky venture-capital bust similar to what we saw in 2008. Furthermore, the Chinese government remains somewhat capricious, and most companies could be subject to new stringent laws in a heartbeat should the Party decides so. Nevertheless, the government seems eager to keep entrepreneurs satisfied as long as they don't step too much out of line.
This great documentary explores china’s fascinating start-up world in depth for those eager to know more.
2. China May Match or Beat America in A.I.
The entrepreneurship push is most visible in the A.I. field. A few years ago, China laid out a development plan to become the Artificial Intelligence world leader by 2030, aiming to surpass its rivals technologically and build a domestic industry worth almost $150 billion. Though no small feat, but here’s why it could succeed:
Education: China has a huge army of young people coming into A.I. Generally supportive government policies combined with generous salaries are already helping China’s internet titans lure top talent away from western rivals.
Data: China has more data than the US — way more. The nation has the most mobile phones and internet users in the world — triple the number in the United States. People there rarely carry cash and pay many of their utility bills with their phones. They can also do all their shopping on their phones, leading many urban youths to leave their wallets at home when going to get grocery. To give you an idea of scale, shared bicycles in China generate 30 terabytes of sensor data per day, roughly 300 times the data being generated in the US.
Government: public policies are accelerating A.I. integration in China, from the ministry of science and technology to the ministry of education, further integrating the internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real-world economy. The Chinese government can implement policy in ways that are impossible in western democracies (its mass entrepreneurship and innovation campaign launched in 2014 caused roughly 11,808 incubators to be built over four years, while France had 228 incubators in total in 2016).
Knowing this, it seems to be no wonder that China now has the most valuable A.I. startup in the world. And though China’s ambitions with A.I. range from the anodyne to the dystopian (it helps that Chinese consumers are more relaxed than Westerners about sharing personal data), it appears that the 2030 goal is achievable, bar an economic or political meltdown (and even then, military A.I is all the rage nowadays).
3. Facial Recognition is "Everywhere"
A.I isn’t only used to sell more products to Chinese consumers: the government is also heavily investing in facial recognition tech, and progressively embedding it into everyday life; cameras track passengers at railway stations, identify homeless people on the streets, and even monitor worshipers in state-approved churches. Across the country, applications of the technology are proliferating, ranging between helpful and unsettling: one may track jaywalkers(as a Parisian, I find this to be cultural discrimination), another reduces airport check-in to a one-second face scan. A female-only university dormitory has even employed facial recognition to keep nonresidents out. The Colonel even joined the finger lickin’ fun.
But the real reason China is pouring money into Facial Recognition is for surveillance and security. And especially so in the Xinjiang province, where the situation is far beyond Orwell’s worse nightmares (which also makes for juicy contracts). Picture, if you will, a high-tech version of the Cultural Revolution, with the minor difference that the technology enabling a techno-police state has become widely accepted by the population. The country already has an estimated 770 million surveillance cameras (versus 176 million in 2017). In 2020, Chinese law enforcement officials were seen wearing "smart helmets" equipped with AI-powered infrared cameras to detect pedestrians' temperature amid the coronavirus pandemic. The helmets also have facial recognition capabilities, license plate recognition and the ability to scan QR codes.
Hey, at least they’re not mining data directly from workers’ brains on an industrial scale.
4. A Social Credit System Exists Thanks to Big Tech
In an attempt at a softer, more invisible and Black-Mirror-like authoritarianism, the government is continuing its work on a “social credit system,” which puts together an infinity of variables, including patriotism and moral behavior, to assign numerical scores to its citizens. The aim was for every Chinese citizen to be trailed by a file compiling data from public and private sources by 2020 (when the program becomes mandatory), and for those files to be searchable by fingerprints and other biometric characteristics. Work is still ongoing in 2021 as the system is still pretty game-able according to a variety of sources.
The goal of this system is to nudge people toward behaviors ranging from energy conservation to obedience to the Party. Cheating on an exam would lower your score, as would leaving bikes parked in a footpath, issuing apologies that are deemed “insincere”, browsing the internet late or buying video-games (take that, gamers). Having a good score would entitle you to favorable terms on loans and apartment rentals, as well as showcasing you on several dating apps (paying your taxes on time just became hot!). With a really good score, one could even get a streamlined visa to Luxembourg. There’s a ”fun” social aspect, too: if your friends are all high-score people, it’s good for you. However, if a couple of close friends miss their student loan repayments, you can’t even travel. As of June 2019, 27 million plane tickets had been denied to people who were deemed untrustworthy ("失信").
Commercial versions of the nascent national program are already in operation, and crooks have already made their moves. Many tech-savvy Chinese are wondering how they can rig their scores, accustomed as they are to having their data mined and lives surveilled. And therein lies the problem: a secretive scheme that proposes to (literally) codify credibility within a society that inherently lacks any is more likely to undermine public trust that instill it.
This great article will tell you more.
5. Discrimination is rife at China’s tech giants
For all its talk of tech dominance, China still can be a rotten place for some people (just like everywhere…). Though the country has national laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender, religion, and disability, declining to hire someone based on age is perfectly legal there. This is especially flagrant within the tech sector, where three-quarters of tech workers are younger than 30. The logic for this goes as follows: most people in their 30s are married and have to take care of their family. Furthermore, it’s harder to recover from tech’s infamous late nights at a certain age. Hence, older workers are not able to focus on high-intensity work.
In a country of 1.4 billion people, many Chinese tech companies are able to move faster than their overseas rivals by simply throwing people at a problem, and younger workers cost less than their more experienced colleagues. Thankfully, China’s shifting age dynamics will probably change the issue within the next 20 years. Yet, as the U.S shows, the idealization of youth can bee hard to scrub from the tech sector’s DNA: both Google and IBM are currently fighting age discrimination suits.
Speaking of Google and discrimination lawsuits… Sexism is also a rampant issue in the Chinese tech sector, despite its illegality. some roles are open only to men while others have requirements on the height, weight, voice or appearance of female applicants. Tech companies aren’t the only employers that have discriminated against women: 13% of postings for central government jobs in 2017 included a requirement or preference for male applicants. If you’d like to get mad, check out some of the job adverts below in a video I call “50 Shades of F-ed up”.
China is an exciting and often terrifying country for Laowais. One hopes that our governments learn something from some of the policies implemented there. Yet, I fear they may be more likely to learn from the bad than the good, as is sometimes the case.