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In my experience, if you want to get to the heart of a problem, it pays to focus on uncertainty. What don’t the experts know? What surprised them?

So when the new year got us thinking about the last decade and the decade ahead, I took the chance to ask the TechNode community about what surprised them, what they’re waiting to find out—and what they didn’t know when the 2010s began. 

The biggest themes that emerged were business models and #techwar. The last year has been hard on companies that have been putting off monetization—no matter how many users they have—and I heard a lot of questions about how far the financial carnage will go. 

Of course, geopolitics also became a big part of the story this year. As TechNode senior editor William Clegg put it, “politically charged tech news really went mainstream in 2019 and this brings suspense for what’s to come this year.” But very little coverage has managed to bridge the gap between politics and technical understanding of the issues the politics is about. I’ve seen the hunger for this in the runaway popularity of Stewart Randall’s SILICON series of deep-dives into China’s quest for IC autonomy.

What changed your view of China tech in 2019?

Yu Uny Cao, Zhejiang University Intellectual Property Exchange Center:

A couple of things.

One, China’s technology sector (chip design and manufacturing, communications, AI, to name a few) must stand on its own going forward, due to the sudden cooling of Sino-U.S. technology collaborations following the December 2018 Huawei case. 

Two, the October 24, 2019 Politburo group study of blockchain shows once again that development of technology is heavily guided by the government. And in this particular case, blockchain might arrive at a break-even price point faster because of China’s coming heavy investment in it.

Nicole Jao, TechNode: 

I was kind of surprised how determined China is in competing with the US in the tech front—that was kind of the undertone of a lot of the government’s moves in 2019, which were largely influenced and swayed by the US. For example, ever since Facebook announced plans for digital currency Libra, the People’s Bank of China can’t stop talking about digital currency. And this spirit is not only in blockchain/digital currency but also chip manufacturing, 5G, and AI. I guess it’s not unexpected, but they are more confident in competing with tech superpowers at every front.

Michael Norris, AgencyChina:

If I am honest, this has been a quiet year for China tech. The thing that strikes me this year is: we’re starting to see major players’ vulnerabilities exposed. Whether it’s Baidu’s falling ad revenue, Tencent’s video game regulatory quagmire, or Alibaba’s dipping profit margins, major players are dominant, but vulnerable. 

Wang Boyuan, TechNode: 

Nothing. Admit it. 2019 is a boring transitional year that is destined to be the dash between two milestones.

Li Li, BASF Venture Capital:

On Dec 30, 2019, China’s Agriculture Ministry said it plans to issue biosafety certificates to a domestically grown, genetically modified soybean crop and two corn crops. In the past, GM crops have not been allowed to grow in China on a commercial scale. In a country as big as China, such a signal will have profound influence on the industry.

John Artman, TechNode:

There was a real slowdown in funding starting early in the year. As the trade war got into full swing, Chinese VCs have become much more cautious in their investing. While there are big failures to point to (Ofo being the most salient), my sense is that venture capital money is waiting to see how things shake out between China and the US.

This was surprising to me because since 2017 there was tons of money pouring into not great ideas, especially in VR/AR and the sharing economy, and it seemed that the innovation boom-bust cycle would just continue. 2019 has shown that China’s investors do have a rational side.

Deborah Weinswig, Coresight Research

The bankruptcy of some tech companies in 2019, such as e-commerce startup Taojiji, suggests that burning cash to gain users/sustain growth is not going to work. Taojiji used cash subsidies and money rebates for distributors to gain 80 million MAU, and it lost over RMB 600 million (about $86 million) in the first half of 2019. The company eventually went bankrupt in December 2019. 

Emma Lee, TechNode: 

After the falls of former tech upstarts like ofo and Taojiji, China’s prevailing cash-for-market share expansion model is shattering as the capital winter continues. It’s a good lesson to be learned for other tech companies in building sustainable business models.

Jill Shen, TechNode: 

All kinds of layoffs happened in big tech companies, and some of them were done with cut-throat methods. It makes me rethink big Chinese tech companies. For me, they are no longer employers offering dream jobs with high pay and chances to learn. I will try to steer away from them.

James Hull, Hullx Capital: 

Meituan reaching profitability for two quarters in a row helped verify the local services business model. And the switch to “industrial internet” (enterprise services) is going to take a lot longer than many originally thought.

Wei Sheng, TechNode:

The rise of TikTok outside China. It is a sign that Chinese tech companies are able to expand their business into the cultural side of overseas markets, not only the hardware or tools for which they are better known. 

Lavender Au, TechNode: 

In 2019, I discovered low-speed electric vehicles, which woke me up from Tesla PR. I love the idea of mobilizing people in rural areas or small cities and enabling them to poodle around in mini cars.

Come 2020, I’m looking out for mentions of “bottom of the pyramid” markets from policymakers. Reporting from Beijing, it’s easy to forget that next serious wave of growth is going to come from third and fourth-tier China.

What are you in suspense about for 2020?

Michael Norris

I have some big doubts about:

  • Whether Ctrip can effectively withstand Meituan’s continued push into travel
  • Ant Financial’s rumoured IPO
  • Pinduoduo’s ability to work out of its cash-for-growth funk

James Hull

Who will benefit the most from 5G: smartphones, networking tech, chip-makers, or content platforms? 

Tony Xu, TechNode: 

I’m in suspense about the fate of Bytedance’s short video app TikTok in overseas markets. I don’t think US lawmakers are going to let the potential risks posed by the platform slide, even after Bytedance moves to separate TikTok from its Chinese operations.

Bytedance probably won’t be willing to sell even part of the ownership of the app to a US firm. Completely cutting ties with China will also be very hard, with Bytedance still hiring domestically for the platform for the past few months.

Nicole Jao

Libra and China’s central bank-issued digital currency both rolling out this year.

What would you tell someone at the start of 2010 about China at the start of 2020?

Michael Norris

Bet big on China’s mobile shopping and gaming.

John Artman:

That’s an odd question that hurts my brain to think of the time logic loops.

In ten years, China’s urban centers will be some of the most futuristic human settlements. Not only can you order food easily, but getting a car in the middle of winter won’t be impossible anymore! In 2009, as an “enlightened” Westerner it was easy to look condescendingly at China for its “quaint” way of thinking of the world. In 2019, that kind of thinking is dangerously naive.

William Clegg, TechNode: 

Don’t get used to riding those yellow bikes. A lot of these convenient startup services aren’t going to last very long so enjoy them while you can!

James Hull

Back in 2009 people thought China couldn’t innovate and only copy. Whoops, how wrong was that? What assumptions like that do we have now?

Deborah Weinswig

Ten years ago, you might never imagine that a messaging app—WeChat—can change the way people use their phones and disrupt many industries, such as social media and e-commerce. Tech in ten years will bring about far more changes than this messaging app.

Carolyn Surh, TechNode: 

i need a whiskey and 3 hours.

Emma Lee

Forget about buying the best computer, everything is going to be integrated in your smartphone, from e-commerce, gaming, payment, social networking, etc. Start your own mobile-based project that addresses people’s everyday needs and invest in Bitcoin.

Wang Boyuan

Don’t spend money on fancy QQ numbers, because the company behind is going to chew you alive in the coming decade.

Eliza Gkritsi, TechNode: 

Since I have only been in China for the last year and a half, I don’t think I should tell them anything. To someone abroad, I would say that China has fully developed into its own universe, where different rules of economics apply.

Happy 2020!

Thanks for reading this column over the past year—it’s been a privilege to edit. If we’re missing something—or to tell me what you’re wondering about—write and demand some coverage from TechNode at < hello@technode.com >.

David Cohen

David Cohen has covered China stories since 2010 as a writer and editor.

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