The most important theme of 2020 wasn’t the emergence of a technological innovation. Rather, it was how the pandemic supercharged certain existing trends in China tech while revealing cracks in the firmament we should have seen long before. At least, that’s what some thoughtful members of the TechNode community said in a remarkable display of consensus.

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We asked them to reflect on the tech year in the time of coronavirus, and point to what we can anticipate in the year ahead.

They say that fast growth is likely over (and that’s a good thing). And they say that many, many ordinary Chinese people lost their blind faith in giant tech (welcome as well). Governmental authorities began making firm strides toward regulation.

Whether pertaining to monopolies, fintech, or protection of personal data, long overdue regulations are now coming, our experts say, but what form they take will surely be a major source of worry, relief, and dispute in 2021. Will authorities, for example, regulate community group buying to protect vulnerable small enterprises?

Perhaps most significant of all, it turns out that the tech trade wars were just beginning back in 2019. Not only does China have tense relations with the US now, but with Australia, India, Japan, and parts of Europe—all of which are having effects on market access. While everyone hopes the incoming US administration of Joe Biden will have a cooling influence—a China-EU trade deal, announced too late to appear in these comments, is a positive signal—no one anticipates a quick resolution to this geopolitical quagmire. It could get a lot worse before it becomes better.

Here’s to a duller, healthier, and less eventful 2021.

How did your views of China tech change in 2020?

Consumer tech is dead, long live consumer tech. It feels like a really saturated space. I expect opportunities to come from more vertical industry offerings like education and healthcare. The era of fast growth is gone and that’s a good thing. Growth hid a lot of problems people didn’t want to deal with.

The West has been learning about this the hard way. Finance has to make sense. So does your headcount. Let’s talk about management and organization upgrading. These don’t get enough airtime in normal Chinese growth but, given the backlash against 996 (working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) and the diseconomies of scale as companies expand, Chinese tech companies have to face a new reality.

—Lillian Li, SaaS maven, author of Chinese Characteristics tech newsletter

The tech stock surge of 2020 was a pleasant surprise. For some firms (Bilibili and Xiaomi, in particular), leaps in share price were backed by strong growth in their business. For others, such as EV-maker Nio, which was nearly left for dead hardly a year ago, the roughly 20x launch of their stock can be attributed more to riding Tesla’s coattails than anything else. However, with so much cash at their disposal now, I expect big moves in the coming year.

—Elliot Zaagman, host of China Tech Investor podcast

I have become more skeptical about “the good intentions” and corporate social responsibility of some Chinese internet companies … Initiatives like rural e-commerce, meal delivery, and community group buying hurt a lot of laobaixing  (common people). I’m personally welcoming regulations like the new privacy laws, antitrust laws, and reining in fintech.

—Ed Sander, tour guide, founder of ChinaTalk.nl

I was quite surprised that China’s tech industry was so susceptible to decisions the US was making. Beijing has been trying to reduce its dependence on US tech for decades. There should have been some insulation against geopolitics. Even today, blacklists and bans are having a tremendous impact on China’s tech industry.

At the same time, China still has not solved the “trust factor” plaguing tech companies. That is, governments are having trouble trusting Chinese tech—like 5G and cloud computing. 

—Abishur Prakash, futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future,Toronto

China is lifting its overall technological capabilities, but the foundation in fundamental technologies such as semiconductors is still quite weak. The internet wave of the last two decades created most innovation in consumer upgrading. Now the innovation rushes into the fundamental technology field. The process is more difficult, but will create much more value.

—Ng Yipin, founding partner, Yunqi Partners

 It has been a turbulent year for Chinese tech as rising geopolitical tensions have caused a decoupling between Chinese and Western technology in the area of 5G, AI, and even on social media platforms. On the one hand, this will greatly push innovation with the local market but, on the other hand, lack of collaboration worldwide may play an adverse role in the Chinese tech industry. 

—Flex Yang, CEO of Babel Finance

What are the lessons of the pandemic for China tech?

Covid blew conventional wisdom out of the water and pulled adoption of EVERYTHING (EVs, AVs, e-bikes, e-scooters, etc.) in closer. Cities around the world like Paris, New York, Austin, and Madrid post-Covid are changing their approach to how they move people and things around.

—Tu Le, founder and managing director, Sino Auto Insights

I think the biggest thing regarding tech during this pandemic has been the ”Health Code” system. It is worrying because massive data is being collected, while whether a person is safe or not is judged by unknown algorithms.

—Liu Weiqi, writer and Xi’an-based Ph.D. student of management science

The pandemic might have made OK opportunities look great and induced a fever which is unsustainable—like the subsidy wars for community group buying and the crazy figures in livestreaming. These won’t last, but investors loved the figures when the pandemic was scaring the shit out of everyone.

—Lillian Li, SaaS maven, author of Chinese Characteristics tech newsletter

Chinese VCs and tech startups realized they need to assure a positive cashflow to better deal with the uncertainty from a changing environment. The coronavirus also forced businesses of all types to revamp their workflow and enhance corporate management. Thus, we’ve seen a rapid growth in enterprise services segments this year and those who moved slowly were hit more by the pandemic.

—Huang Mingming, founding partner, Future Capital

There were a lot of learning moments for the crypto industry this year. The Chinese Digital RMB commanded much attention from mainstream media as it was not only the first central bank digital currency to be launched, but has also made incredible progress in its testings and experimentation…The pandemic also taught traditional investors to rediscover the value of diversifying their portfolios with crypto assets to hedge risks and capitalize on its investment potential.

—Flex Yang, CEO of Babel Finance

What are you most excited or worried about in 2021?

Excited: 2020 is gone! I hope travel (especially international travel) can resume and we don’t have to do things virtually all the time. A more positive phenomenon is that people in China don’t blindly worship big tech now.

Worried: That the community group buying business may sabotage the ecosystem of agricultural product sales. I have no idea how the tracking system, facial recognition, and all kinds of monitoring systems created during the pandemic are going to be preserved.

And I am not sure I am smart enough to use the encrypted digital RMB.

—Liu Weiqi, writer and Xi’an-based Ph.D. student of management science

Looking back, you see the most innovative enterprises are always born in the most uncertain times, such as Apple and Microsoft. In China, Alibaba and ByteDance were founded after the 1997 and 2008 financial crises, respectively. Looking forward, we believe those providing the most leading products and technologies will win the mark and thrive in hard times.

—Huang Mingming, founding partner, Future Capital

Worried: For the EV (electric vehicle) startups, will the export countries try to block or impede their progress of foreign EV companies entering their markets? If not, can the foreign EV brands carve out positioning in a complicated region such as the EU? How will the US-China relationship play into EV/AV development and growth in each country?

Excited: Specific use cases for AVs (autonomous vehicles) seem like a real possibility for commercialization in 2021, specifically closed-loop delivery, commercial trucking, and low-speed autonomous delivery.

—Tu Le, founder and managing director, Sino Auto Insights

In 2021, two things will be very important to the blockchain industry. First is that the support and spending on blockchain technologies from the Chinese government will increase a lot, which will cultivate many small and medium blockchain companies and educate more blockchain developers. The second is the launch of DCEP, or digital yuan… I firmly believe that CBDC (central bank digital currency) will accelerate the adoption of blockchain technologies into real-world businesses and IT systems. It will generate a lot of opportunities and wealth, just like the internet did.

—He Yifan, Red Date Technology CEO

A silver lining in geopolitics of tech is that nations are doubling down in fields like AI and robotics. New breakthroughs could emerge in areas like healthcare, finance, and transportation, that propel societies forward. This is what excites me the most.

What worries me is that the next chapter in the geopolitics of tech is about to begin in 2021. There is unlikely to be a detente between the US and China, or between China and other nations like India and Japan. The water is now moving in a different direction. As China moves forward with powerful tech projects, the established order will be more “on guard” than ever before. This could result in aggressive action on everything from immigration to economy to foreign policy. The conditions are emerging for a massive split in the world, as nations pick sides and put technology at the center of their geopolitical ambitions.

—Abishur Prakash, futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future, Toronto

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Yunqi Partners.

Susan Cunningham

Susan is a Beijing-based copy editor. As an editor and writer, she has covered Asia business news for a long time but is a newbie to the China tech sphere.