The call was only the second time the leaders had spoken since President Biden’s inauguration. The lack of communication was a measure of the rising tensions between the two countries.
After Communist Party websites shared Li Guangman’s fierce denunciation of private corporations, contention broke out over whether leaders share his views.
Is conflict with China inevitable?
As the country’s leader prepares for a likely third term, he is promising “common prosperity” to lift farmers and working families into the middle class.
Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.
This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.
China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.
The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.
A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.
It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.
As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.
For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.
Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”
These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues.
While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.
Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”
Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.
The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.
Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.
In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.
Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.
“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”
This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.
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The state security ministry is recruiting from a vast pool of private-sector hackers who often have their own agendas and sometimes use their access for commercial cybercrime, experts say.
There is growing anti-China sentiment in South Korea, particularly among young voters. Conservative politicians are eager to turn the antipathy into a presidential election issue.
In Taipei, young people like Nancy Tao Chen Ying watched as the Hong Kong protests were brutally extinguished. Now they wonder what’s in their future.
Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.
The tech industry in China has had quite a turbulent week. The government is upending its $100 billion private education sector, wiping billions from the market cap of the industry’s most lucrative players. Meanwhile, the assault on Chinese internet giants continued. Tech stocks tumbled after Tencent suspended user registration, sparking fears over who will be the next target of Beijing’s wrath.
Incisive observers point out that the new wave of stringent regulations against China’s internet and education firms has long been on Beijing’s agenda and there’s nothing surprising. Indeed, the central government has been unabashed about its desires to boost manufacturing and contain the unchecked powers of its service industry, which can include everything from internet platforms, film studios to after-school centers.
A few weeks ago I had an informative conversation with a Chinese venture capitalist who has been investing in industrial robots for over a decade, so I’m including it in this issue as it provides useful context for what’s going on in the consumer tech industry this week.
Automate the factories
China is putting robots into factories at an aggressive pace. Huang He, a partner at Northern Light Venture Capital, sees three forces spurring the demand for industrial robots — particularly ones that are made in China.
Over the years, Beijing has advocated for “localization” in a broad range of technology sectors, from enterprise software to production line automation. One may start to see Chinese robots that can rival those of Schneider and Panasonic a few years down the road. CRP, an NLVC-backed industrial robot maker, is already selling across Southeast Asia, Russia and East Europe.
On top of tech localization, it’s also well acknowledged that China is facing a severe demographic crisis. The labor shortage in its manufacturing sector is further compounded by the reluctance of young people to do menial factory work. Factory robots could offer a hand.
“Youngsters these days would rather become food delivery riders than work in a factory. The work that robots replace is the low-skilled type, and those that still can’t be taken up by robots pay well and come with great benefits,” Huang observed.
Large corporations in China still lean toward imported robots due to the products’ proven stability. The problem is that imported robots are not only expensive but also selective about their users.
“Companies need to have deep technical capabilities to be able to operate these [Western] robots, but such companies are rare in China,” said Huang, adding that the overwhelming majority of Chinese enterprises are small and medium size.
With the exceptions of the automotive and semiconductor industries, which still largely rely on sophisticated, imported robots, affordable, easy-to-use Chinese robots can already meet most of the local demand for industrial automation, Huang said.
China currently uses nearly one million six-axis robots a year but only manufactures 20% of them itself. The gap, coupled with a national plan for localization, has led to a frenzy of investments in industrial robotics startups.
The rush isn’t necessarily a good thing, said Huang. “There’s this bizarre phenomenon in China, where the most funded and valuable industrial robotic firms are generating less than 30 million yuan in annual revenue and not really heard of by real users in the industry.”
“This isn’t an industry where giants can be created by burning through cash. It’s not the internet sector.”
Small-and-medium-size businesses are happily welcoming robots onto factory floors. Take welding for example. An average welder costs about 150,000 yuan ($23,200) a year. A typical welding robot, which is sold for 120,000 yuan, can replace up to three workers a year and “doesn’t complain at work,” said the investor. A quality robot can work continuously for six to eight years, so the financial incentive to automate is obvious.
Advanced manufacturing is not just helping local bosses. It will eventually increase foreign enterprises’ dependence on China for its efficiency, making it hard to cut off Chinese supply chains despite efforts to avoid the geopolitical risks of manufacturing in China.
“In electronics, for example, most of the supply chains are in China, so factories outside China end up spending more on logistics to move parts around. Much of the 3C manufacturing is already highly automated, which relies heavily on electricity, but in most emerging economies, the power supply is still quite unstable, which disrupts production,” said Huang.
War on internet titans
The shock of antitrust regulations against Alibaba from last year is still reverberating, but another wave of scrutiny has already begun. Shortly after Didi’s blockbuster IPO in New York, the ride-hailing giant was asked to cease user registration and work on protecting user information critical to national security.
On Tuesday, Tencent stocks fell the most in a decade after it halted user signups on its WeChat messenger as it “upgrades” its security technology to align with relevant laws and regulations. The gaming and social media giant is just the latest in a growing list of companies hit by Beijing’s tightening grip on the internet sector, which had been flourishing for two decades under laissez-faire policies.
Underlying the clampdowns is Beijing’s growing unease with the service industry’s unscrutinized accumulation of wealth and power. China is unequivocally determined to advance its tech sector, but the types of tech that Beijing wants are not so much the video games that bring myopia to children and algorithms that get adults hooked to their screens. China makes it clear in its five-year plan, a series of social and economic initiatives, that it will go all-in on “hard tech” like semiconductors, renewable energy, agritech, biotech and industrial automation like factory robotics.
China has also vowed to fight inequality in education and wealth. In the authorities’ eyes, expensive, for-profit after-schools dotting big cities are hindering education attainment for children from poorer areas, which eventually exacerbates the wealth gap. The new regulatory measures have restricted the hours, content, profits and financing of private tutoring institutions, tanking stocks of the industry’s top companies. Again, there have been clear indications from President Xi Jinping’s writings to bring off-campus tutoring “back on the educational track.” All China-focused investors and analysts are now poring over Xi’s thoughts and directives.
The Exchange spent a little time on Friday ruminating on the impact of then-rumored regulation in China targeting its edtech sector. News that the Chinese government intended to crack down further on the education technology market hit shares of public, China-based edtech companies. It was a mess.
Then over the weekend, the rumors became reality, and the impact is still being felt today in the global markets.
But there’s more. China is also bringing new regulatory pressure on food-delivery companies and Tencent Music. More precisely, we’ve seen successive market-dynamic-changing moves from the Chinese government in the last few days, coming as 2021 had already proved to be a turbulent environment for China-based technology companies.
The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.
Today we have to do a little bit of work to understand precisely what is going on with the various regulatory changes. Why? Because the Chinese venture capital market is a key player in the global venture scene. And Chinese startups have gone public on both Chinese, Hong Kong and U.S. exchanges; there’s a lot of capital tied up in companies impacted today — and possibly tomorrow.
For startups, the regulatory changes aren’t a death blow; indeed, many Chinese tech startups won’t be affected by what we’ve seen thus far. And upstart tech companies in sectors less likely to be targeted by central authorities may become more attractive to investors than they were before the regulatory onslaught kicked off. But on the whole, it feels like the risk profile of doing business in China has risen. That could curb the pace at which capital is invested, cut valuations and lower interest in the Chinese startup market from private-market investors able to invest globally.
Let’s parse what’s changed, examine market reactions and then consider what could be next. We want to better understand today’s Chinese startup market and what its new form could mean for existing players and future performance.
The edtech clampdown did not start last week. China’s edtech sector started to rack up penalties and fines in June, which led to what the Asia Times called “warning bells” in the sector. From there, things went from penalties to punishing regulatory changes.
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