There’s no easy way to say it: I’m leaving TechNode. This wasn’t an easy decision, but I believe that it’s the best for myself and my family.

Our editor David Cohen will be taking over as acting Editor-in-Chief. I have full confidence that, under his leadership, TechNode will move strongly into its next phase and get closer to achieving our vision of becoming the number one tech media platform covering China.

To our readers and our members, I want to thank you for your support, advice, and friendship. Your investments in our content over the last year have made it possible for us to double down on our passions. TechNode will continue to serve you with good quality content and more new media products and events. 

When I first took the job, many of my friends, professional acquaintances, and former colleagues cautioned me about joining a niche publication. The logic was, “Not only is the appetite for China relatively small, but the appetite for China tech is even smaller.” I would love to be able to say that I, against all the naysayers, knew that China tech would blow up like it has. The truth is, I got lucky. 

Bottom line: I never expected to be able to make a career out of covering technology in China. But since I started at TechNode, China, and its technology, have become a real field of study.

I joined TechNode not because of an uncanny ability to predict the future, but because it clearly would scratch several of my “meaningful work” itches: 

  • building something
  • working with smart and creative people
  • my convictions that:
    • to understand the future we must first understand the current state of technology and, on the other
    • China will play an outsized role in any one of the many possible futures. 

I’ve been very lucky and extremely privileged to be doing this work while both China and technology have increased total mindshare. However, both topics are still poorly understood inside and outside of China, inside and outside of the technology industry. To fully “know” any given thing is inherently impossible, but we must do our best to understand and accept this amazingly complex world we’ve been born into. 

I truly hope TechNode has helped you along that path.

A brief, personal timeline 

Anyone who knows me has probably heard this many times.

  • Summer 2004: After studying Mandarin for a year, I come with a study group and crappy Samsung feature phone to Suzhou to study Chinese for a month and then travel around the country for another month.
  • Summer 2006: I do the above again.
  • March 2008: I arrive in Beijing on a one-year contract to teach English to adults at a private “training center,” with a better Nokia feature phone. The phone to have back then was the Nokia N97, costing at least RMB 5,000 (about $700).
  • Nov 2009: I got the media bug, taking a job at China Radio International as a booker, host, and “internet” reporter. I learn more about the world around me in any given week than I ever did since graduating university three years earlier. 
  • Jan 2011: Groupon launches in China, precipitating a Cambrian explosion of clones including the now-mega successful Meituan.
  • Jan 2013: I write my first blog post about China tech (surprise, it’s about Huawei!)
  • May 2015: I got the building bug: I hit the “bamboo ceiling” of a very traditional, state-run organization and decided to switch industries to localization. There I built a team almost from scratch from three to 45.
    • Around this time, ride-hailing was already a thing and mobile payments were quickly becoming the norm.
  • Nov 2016: Realizing that localization is actually a very unrewarding (and ultimately boring) industry and feeling the media itch, I join TechNode. At the time, the English team had only two full-time reporters and few people in Silicon Valley had ever heard of WeChat.
    • Meanwhile, the Mobike and Ofo bike-wars start warming up.
  • June 2020: After almost four years, TechNode’s English team is producing consistently interesting, consistently deep, and consistently high-quality articles about China tech. This, if there ever is such a thing, is a good time to look for the next thing.

12 years, 5 lessons

What I’ve learned about China tech in my 12 years here (in no particular order):

1. Never underestimate the drive of Chinese entrepreneurs. China’s tech majors were founded by people who were born into an environment of high scarcity. Coupled with cultural pressures to achieve higher status, this has resulted in perhaps the highest density of ultra-ambitious business people the world has ever seen.

2. Don’t try to box in a company to your own limited expectations. In Asia, conglomeration and horizontal sprawl is the norm, not the exception. Growing up in a relatively mature consumer market, I always expected brands to be very specific. In China, companies, not just tech, are always reaching sideways both out of ambition, but also out of survival: wider, not deeper, is the name of the game.

3. China speed is real, but it’s also very messy. China doesn’t really have a professional culture in the sense that we see in many global corporations. Instead of process, China’s companies are built on informal networks within and between teams. This makes for extremely flexible organizations that can react to internal and external changes quickly, without the baggage of ritualistic habits. However, information flows can be very low fidelity, leading to mixed messages and unclear goals.

4. China, for all its tech successes, is still extremely low tech on average. China may have been the first country to roll out mobile phone-based solutions to containing Covid-19, but those solutions actually are just glorified certificates of health. Almost all of the tracking and tracing actually occurs through handwritten and self-reported records.

Contrast this to what Singapore and the EU have been doing: using existing bluetooth and near-field communication technology in phones to automatically create databases of people who come near each other. 

This is clearly a microcosm of a much bigger difference, one that has left China quite handicapped: it doesn’t make much technology. Before the chip war, this was okay. America could export the technological innovations and China could use its vast data sets and cheap labor to commercialize it. Now, it’s scrambling to find a solution it needed five years ago.

5. Most of China’s most famous tech companies don’t have much technology.

Of the original BAT triumvirate of first-gen consumer tech majors, only Baidu can truly claim to be a tech company. Like Google, they created their own algorithms to collect and understand the almost infinite amount of information on the mainland internet. 

What technology did Tencent and Alibaba create? They made applications on top of already mature technology. We call them tech companies because they use technology to translate traditional business models into digital ones.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix all have very sophisticated technological methods of keeping users coming back to their services (mostly through computer science applied to problems of behavioral psychology.) 

I don’t mean to diminish anyone’s accomplishments. Tech majors have completely changed the landscape of China’s consumption markets… but by using existing technology to fill in very large service gaps in the offline world and create new online services and consumption models rather than by creating new technology.

Parting words

The future is not predetermined. It is clear that China, and its tech, will continue to influence and shape the world in interesting and unpredictable ways. 

I’m proud to have worked for a company and with a team that was helping to draw the map as the territory was being discovered. I look forward to watching as TechNode continues to grow and thrive.

I’d like to thank Lu Gang, TechNode’s founder and CEO, for giving me the opportunity to build something new and unique in the media industry. 

And of course, our members and other readers: thank you for taking a leap and joining us as we try out something new.

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...