Chinese tech WeChat Tiktok Huawei
(Image credit: TechNode/Wang Xing)

The world is still open to Chinese tech despite a global backlash in recent years, experts at the TechNode Emerge 2020 conference said Thursday, but firms must adapt to the changing geopolitical environment when expanding overseas.

2020 has been a tough year for Chinese tech companies selling to overseas markets. In India, local authorities banned a total of 177 Chinese apps in June and September following border clashes between the two countries. In the US, the Trump administration announced impending bans on short video app Tiktok and instant-messaging app Wechat, which are among the most successful Chinese apps in international markets. Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei is facing increasing restrictions on supplying gear for Western countries’ next-generation 5G networks.

Beyond geopolitical tensions, Chinese tech companies expanding overseas also face obstacles in the form of privacy regulations, marketing, and localization, William Bao Bean, general partner at investment firm SOSV, said during the opening panel at the Shanghai event.

“The challenge for entrepreneurs going across the border is actually trying to understand what you can do and what you cannot do,” Bean said. 

The lack of regard for privacy has led to some of the problems Chinese tech companies face in markets like Europe and the US because of stricter local regulations on data security, Bean explained.

“You have to adapt to the local market. You have to follow the local law. And half the time, people [startups] don’t even know that they’re breaking the law when they go across the border,” he said.

Chinese companies have been successful in exporting hardware to overseas markets, but there are trust considerations when they are exporting software that holds personal data, Kiran Patel, senior director at China-Britain Business Council, said during the discussion.

“That is the challenge that companies like Tiktok and Wechat have to meet when moving into a new market,” Patel said. “The first challenge that must be overcome is building trust.”

Chinese venture capital (VC) funds may find it difficult to raise money from US pension funds, said Bean. But he believes that the hurdles faced by VCs are not affecting Chinese startups. “That’s a money problem, not a startup problem,” he said.

“China has got the number-two largest VC industry in the world in terms of the amount of funds put in startups and it’s actually easier for Chinese companies to raise money from China,” he said.

Bean said that Chinese tech companies should see Southeast Asia as their next destination in their global expansion plans to avoid regulatory uncertainties in Europe and India.

“Southeast Asia has a lot of the same challenges, problems, or opportunities that China had 10 years ago. It’s a mobile-first market. So people’s first or only experience with the internet is on a smartphone, which is very similar to China,” he said.

Bean said he couldn’t be sure whether or not there will be more Chinese tech companies facing global regulatory backlash like Huawei and Tiktok, but he is optimistic that this would not stop Chinese startups from going overseas.

“Innovation usually finds its away,” he said. “It’s like water. It’s always just going to find a crack.”

Wei Sheng

Writing about semiconductors and telecommunications.