China’s tech behemoths: Coming to dominate a market near you soon
We have become used to the idea of Silicon Valley technology companies winning over the world – like pop bands – but China’s tech giants will probably leapfrog their Californian competitors in coming decades, with a wave of shinier – and cheaper – products and services.
A wave of Chinese consumer product domination is coming, probably within the next 20 to 30 years.
James Crabtree, Associate Professor in Practice, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says given the trajectory of the Chinese economy, there’s little doubt that many of China’s largest companies are on track to become the biggest in the world.
“At the moment we’re at a stage where these companies could go on to become absolutely massive,” he told Global-is-Asian.
“Over the next 20 to 30 years, the Chinese economy is going to become far bigger than every other economy. If that’s your starting position, you’ll have to assume many Chinese companies will be the biggest in the world too.”
You’re never heard of Geely, but you will
Chinese firms are already making up for anything they don’t have by buying it. But in the long run, China’s growth will depend on how well they can operate foreign assets and work outside China itself.
Chinese car manufacturer Geely already owns Volvo and Lotus. It is now the largest investor in global giant Daimler, the company that owns Mercedes Benz. It’s unlikely your average car enthusiast has even heard of Geely – but they will.
In the tech sector, Tencent, the giant internet group, has built stakes worth a total of US$4.3bn in more than 15 foreign companies, including Snap, Tesla and Spotify. Alibaba, the e-commerce group, signed cross-border deals worth a total of US$2.4bn in 2017, according to Dealogic.
But these overseas investments don’t signal that the big Chinese tech companies are lagging in the innovation stakes.
Duncan Clark is a 20-year veteran analyst of China’s tech industry based in China, and author of the definitive book on Alibaba, China’s number two tech company – Tencent is number one.
Travelling back to America feels like stepping backwards
He wrote in the Financial Times earlier this year that, for the first time, travelling back to America felt like stepping backwards rather than forward.
Urban China was “increasingly a study in frictionless living”, he said.
“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.”
How ready are China’s tech giants? Nearly there, judging by their actions. Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing raised US$4 billion late last year for expansion and has already acquired Uber’s largest competitor in Brazil, an app called 99, for a reported US$1 billion.
Didi’s energetic CEO Jean Liu, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is one of a new generation of tech leaders following in the footsteps of Alibaba’s inimitable Jack Ma. These leaders want to prove themselves on the world stage.
Professor Crabtree recently interviewed Liu in Beijing for a cover story for the Wired magazine. He said that she was readying to launch an aggressive push abroad, after fighting off US-based rival Uber’s entry into China.
That battle was an expensive, no-holds barred fight that ended with Uber throwing in the towel and merging its China business with Didi.
Saudi Arabia of data
China’s tech sector has some advantages in the wars to come. The companies are rich, well-run, and they possess the gold of the modern age: data. The Economist recently dubbed China the “Saudi Arabia of data”.
“With data, scale matters a lot: 325 million Americans is less impressive than 1.2 billion Chinese. But so is being able to throw together lots of different types of data – to do things that wouldn’t be allowed in the West due to data protection,” Crabtree says.
“Bring together records from the government with your shopping habits, and that will throw up all sorts of goodies.
“If you think about what Alibaba does at the moment through Alipay, via its partner group Ant Financial, they can take data from your shopping habits, mix it together with your social media use, and then that will help to tell them whether or not you are good for a loan.”
But the question is whether Chinese companies can thrive outside China and in markets where they won’t have the government and patriotic support they enjoy at home.
Expanding beyond China
The tech sector has continued to expand outside China, in spite of the fact that overseas buying sprees in other sectors have been reined in by the China Banking Regulatory Commission, to reduce exposure to risk.
Some of China’s corporate giants have over-reached abroad and the Chinese government is on alert for bad behaviour as its businesses spread their wings.
“Chinese domination is an untested proposition,” says Crabtree. “Alibaba has lots of partnerships outside of China, so does Tencent. They’re investing in people, they’re buying smaller companies, but they haven’t yet opened up in big foreign markets.
“None of these companies have yet tried to crack, in a meaningful way, a big, advanced, industrial economy like Japan, a European country or North America.
“Are the Chinese tech giants going to take on Google and break America? Like the Beatles or something? There aren’t that many that have done that yet. But the prospect is there,” Crabtree says.