Why is China smashing its tech industry?
Just as India is celebrating its first big consumer tech IPO in Zomato, China is smashing its hugely successful tech industry. For those who haven’t been following, the Chinese government is clamping down on exactly the sort of businesses that are enjoying increasing monopolisation in the rest of the world – starting with the last minute scuttling of the IPO of Ant Financial (Alibaba’s fintech spinoff) to the categorical attack on cryptocurrencies. As a result, Chinese tech stocks have taken a hammering, some even falling over 90% in recent weeks. Of the several explanations out there, Noah Smith’s blog talks about a plausible, which as he acknowledges is influenced by Dan Wang of the macro research outfit Gavekal who tend to understand Chinese political economy better than most.
First, he dispels the myth that China is cracking down on tech in general but more on consumer internet companies:
“…notice that China isn’t cracking down on all of its technology companies. Huawei, for example, still seems to enjoy the government’s full backing. The government is going hell-bent-for-leather to try to create a world-class domestic semiconductor industry, throwing huge amounts of money at even the most speculative startups. And it’s still spending heavily on A.I. It’s not technology that China is smashing — it’s the consumer-facing internet software companies that Americans tend to label “tech”.
It’s possible that the Chinese government has decided that the profits of companies like Alibaba and Tencent come more from rents than from actual value added — that they’re simply squatting on unproductive digital land, by exploiting first-mover advantage to capture strong network effects, or that the IP system is biased to favor these companies, or something like that. There are certainly those in America who believe that Facebook and Google produce little of value relative to the profit they rake in; maybe China’s leaders, for reasons that will remain forever opaque to us, have simply reached the same conclusion.”
He quotes Dan Wang:
“I find it bizarre that the world has decided that consumer internet is the highest form of technology. It’s not obvious to me that apps like WeChat, Facebook, or Snap are doing the most important work pushing forward our technologically-accelerating civilization. To me, it’s entirely plausible that Facebook and Tencent might be net-negative for technological developments. The apps they develop offer fun, productivity-dragging distractions; and the companies pull smart kids from R&D-intensive fields like materials science or semiconductor manufacturing, into ad optimization and game development.
The internet companies in San Francisco and Beijing are highly skilled at business model innovation and leveraging network effects, not necessarily R&D and the creation of new IP….I wish we would drop the notion that China is leading in technology because it has a vibrant consumer internet. A large population of people who play games, buy household goods online, and order food delivery does not make a country a technological or scientific leader…These are fine companies, but in my view, the milestones of our technological civilization ought to be found in scientific and industrial achievements instead.
…It’s become apparent in the last few months that the Chinese leadership has moved towards the view that hard tech is more valuable than products that take us more deeply into the digital world. Xi declared this year that while digitization is important, “we must recognize the fundamental importance of the real economy… and never deindustrialize.” This expression preceded the passage of securities and antitrust regulations, thus also pummeling finance, which along with tech make up the most glamorous sectors today.”
He concludes by saying:
“…China’s top leaders are now trying to direct the country’s industrial mix toward what they think will serve the nation as a whole.
And what do they think will serve the nation as a whole? My guess is: Power. Geopolitical and military power for the People’s Republic of China, relative to its rival nations.
If you’re going to fight a cold war or a hot war against the U.S. or Japan or India or whoever, you need a bunch of military hardware. That means you need materials, engines, fuel, engineering and design, and so on. You also need chips to run that hardware, because military tech is increasingly software-driven. And of course you need firmware as well. You’ll also need surveillance capability, for keeping an eye on your opponents, for any attempts you make to destabilize them, and for maintaining social control in case they try to destabilize you.
…so when China’s leaders look at what kind of technologies they want the country’s engineers and entrepreneurs to be spending their effort on, they probably don’t want them spending that effort on stuff that’s just for fun and convenience. They probably took a look at their consumer internet sector and decided that the link between that sector and geopolitical power had simply become too tenuous to keep throwing capital and high-skilled labor at it. And so, in classic CCP fashion, it was time to smash.”