Ahead of SupChina’s ‘Next China’ conference in New York, we spoke to SupChina editor and old China hand Jeremy Goldkorn about all things China tech. Goldkorn spoke about how China has become a true innovator, how developments in the sector have changed the way other countries perceive China, how the country will lead in healthcare, and how all this feeds into frenemies and changing geopolitics. And how he loves his DJI drone.

“China is no longer what we understood ten years ago, the reality is completely different now and tech is one of those things,” said Goldkorn about what he perceives to have been a watershed in how the world views China and why tech is such an important part of the Next China: How the Middle Kingdom Will Reshape Your World. The conference has sold out but can be viewed via live stream.

What changed your opinion of Chinese tech?

What led my change [of opinion] was seeing actual Chinese innovations. For me that started to happen was when Weibo suddenly was a much better product than Twitter within a year of being a complete clone. It made it more usable, easier to find stuff, easier for mainstream non-techies to use, but it still retained a great conversational flavor, lots of multimedia was enabled very quickly, and advertising. In any aspect of a microblog, they were well ahead of Twitter and still are.

Then Didi came along and that for me was a big moment because it wasn’t a ripoff of Uber. It was a similar idea, but when we initially used it it was mostly to hail actual taxis. That was a completely different way of thinking and very suited to cities like Beijing which had a lot of taxis. People were thinking innovatively and acting on it, which is more important than just having innovative thoughts–acting on them.

WeChat wasn’t an invention of a whole new category, but it was the innovation and development of some technically excellent products that work seamlessly.

People were playing with different [P2P lending and small lending] business models. It was a whole new category where Chinese companies could just do whatever the hell they thought, they didn’t even have anyone to copy. There were just a handful of P2P companies in other countries and most of those are pretty bundled up in regulations on what they’re able to do, so Chinese companies didn’t need a model from abroad.

Then Xiaomi didn’t invent a new category but in such an amazing period of time they made a really great product and they did innovate in terms of the sales channel and business model.

The thing for me that did it completely was when I bought a DJI drone. It was kind of like when I first got an iPhone. This thing just works, it’s a thing of beauty. Just phenomenal. The quality, the design.

With bike sharing there are problems, but the model is a sensible way to do bike sharing instead of these stupid docked bikes. That was a fantastic Chinese innovation. There are problems but I believe that industry will sort itself out.

Health tech and healthcare are a part of the Next China conference. Why is this sector so significant?

I try to make sure we have a lot of healthcare coverage because the Chinese healthcare industry–everything from hospitals and clinics, doctor education and training, drugs pharma, biotech, genetic engineering, cloning, gene editing, stem cell therapy, use of AI in certain surgery–China is going to be at the forefront of many of these new developments and to understand the Next China, you’ve got to understand where healthcare is going.

China’s also got huge problems, like the healthcare system is a mess. I mean the United States is also a mess in a completely different way, but China is more of a mess really in terms of how painful it is to actually get a disease treated. That means there’s a lot of problems to solve, a lot of opportunity, but if things go wrong, things can go really wrong.

All aspects of healthcare are a huge story for understanding China. Everything that happens in this area is going to impact the rest of the world, whether it’s Chinese innovations, Chinese-bred superbugs–you name it, China’s a player already.

When it comes to the US and China in healthcare, they’re destined to be frenemies, both competitors, and cooperators.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the past year of the rivalry between the US and China in artificial intelligence. How do you see this playing out?

The feeling on both sides of the Pacific is that the rivalry is very real and I think this year was the year–what I call a Sputnik year–and one of the major factors was that the American media and political classes woke up to the fact that China is a real AI power and its strength is growing. And because China has most of the resource that is key to AI–the data–it’s going to be a significant player. But on the other hand, if you look at the big firms involved in AI, both Chinese and foreign, you’ll see that Google has set up an AI research base in China, Baidu’s got one in Silicon Valley, Didi in Seattle. It’s the same as many of these things between the US and China: a frenemy relationship.

Could this tech rivalry have more significant ramifications?

I don’t think any other country feels its great power status is being threatened. For the last half-century or more, America has been used to being the biggest, baddest player in the room. It’s uncomfortable when some upstart comes along and challenges your alpha status. I think the anxiety from the US is much more intense, whereas, for example, Britain conceded quite some time ago that it’s not a great power.

At TechNode we like to think tech is an important part of the overall China story. How big a part do you think tech plays in understanding China?

Tech intersects with every story everywhere now, but I think in China that is particularly the case. First of all the crazy contradictions of China are embodied so crystal clearly in tech. For example, the most censored internet on the planet is also in some ways the most vibrant. The ethical, moral and political considerations about the way the Chinese government controls tech and their ideas of cyber sovereignty and ways of promoting these ideas to the outside world such as the Wuzhen Internet Conference, these are things that if you’re interested in Chinese politics or culture are vital to understand and are based on network technologies. Then there are the ways tech is changing Chinese lives so rapidly and the leapfrog effect–people leaping over credit cards straight to mobile payment, over desktops to mobile first.

How do you hope conference goers’ understanding of China tech will be changed by Next China?

We’d like people to go away having heard a diverse range of views about subjects that cover everything from business to culture to politics, and I think that these views will shape their understanding of what’s coming in China over the next decade. We believe everything is being rethought in terms of what China is. It’s been hyped for so long, but it’s happening now–it’s the real deal.

Tech runs through everything. Tech is affecting the financial system, how people do business, the way the Communist Party does propaganda, politics. It’s changing the relationship of citizens to the government, things like the social credit system which are deeply connected to a number of different trends in society, from authoritarian controls to the need to develop a credit system, and the huge problem of regulating public behavior, which is sort of a cultural problem and they use tech to solve.

So I don’t think you can talk about China and where China’s going meaningfully without technology being a part of it. I guess that’s what our tech thing is, and that’s why our viewpoint is different from a pure tech conference because what we’re saying is ‘where’s China going?’ and one of the things we need to understand is tech, we’re not just having a conference about what’s going on in tech.

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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