Will China's tech sector be held back?

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here, and a happy post-4th of July. Spending a couple of days in Nantucket, back to New York in relatively short order. But a Quick Take to kick off your shortened week.

And I thought I would talk a little bit about what's happening between the Chinese and the Americans on tech. In particular, I think it's quite important that the Chinese government and their regulatory authority on cyberspace, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the CAC, has been focusing a cybersecurity probe on Chinese companies that have recently listed in the United States. It started last Friday with Didi, which is the leader for Chinese ride hailing. So it's basically like Uber or Lyft in China, $4 billion IPO in New York just a couple of days before the Chinese government announced that they were going to engage in serious scrutiny and regulation of the company. Their stock value went down like 20% almost immediately on the back of that.

Then you also saw broader announcements against a truck hailing app. This is called Full Truck Alliance as well as Kanzhun, which is a major online recruiter in China. And I think it's important because if you look at the Chinese tech sector, which is the most dynamic and innovative in the world aside from the United States, it has been driven significantly, I would say even mostly by the private sector.

And China is a communist country. They engage in state capitalism. So the state is the principal economic actor, but there is a vibrant private sector. And particularly when we talk about innovation and the ability to attract world-class talent that works really hard and could work anywhere, it's important to get that level of efficiency that it is private sector. Well, the Chinese government is increasingly uncomfortable with the independence of many of these firms. And the principal way, mechanism for many of these companies to become more independent was to list outside of China and increasingly outside of Hong Kong as well. And for many, that means IPO listings in the United States. Now to the extent that the Chinese government is now sending a message that there are going to be significant price to pay for Chinese tech companies that list outside of China, Mainland China or Hong Kong, that's going to put a very significant chilling effect on any Chinese tech companies that are thinking about so doing, which will mean much more alignment of those tech companies to the Chinese government model, becoming national champions more in line with, let's say Huawei, which is really state-directed, military integrated. And they try to make money, but first and foremost, it's really not about shareholders. It's really about what the Chinese government wants.

Now, in the United States, of course it is a vastly different landscape. You've got companies in the US that are more aligned with the government in the tech space. Anything from Oracle, to Microsoft, to Anduril, which is AI and drones together, for example, but then you have an awful lot of companies that are more traditional multinational corporations that are focusing purely on their shareholders. And Apple is not working closely with the government in any way, shape, or form. And you have a lot of individual CEOs, tech CEOs, that themselves increasingly feel like the most powerful individual actors in the United States and in the digital space increasingly on the planet, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk. Now, we know that the Chinese government isn't allowing any Elon Musks to emerge in China. One did, Jack Ma, and the Chinese government basically defenestrated him, but they hadn't been taking that position towards the Chinese tech firms. And now increasingly they are.

I would say there are a couple of big questions that this puts into play. One is it makes it more likely that a broader technology split between the United States and China is coming. Fewer Chinese companies with access to American investment and shareholders, more Chinese tech companies aligned with the Chinese government, fewer American tech companies with access to the Chinese market. These are the two largest economies in the world. They're the two technology superpowers. I would argue more integration and interdependence is good. And it's good because you ultimately don't want to destroy things that you're interdependent with. So it means that there will be a greater sense of cooperation, even in the absence of trust. I think we're moving away from that.

But the other question, and it's a big question, is to what extent will a Chinese tech sector that is increasingly controlled by the government, not just in terms of red lines of what they can and can't do, not just state capitalism and industrial policy, but that the actors themselves increasingly can't really be full-fledged private sector actors. Does that mean that the tech sector in China will become dramatically less competitive and less efficient than it has been historically?

And I think there is a danger of that. Certainly, in the last 20 years, if you think about why technology companies do really well, yes, it's access to capital, yes, it's access to data, but it's also access to incredibly innovative human capital. The best data scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs in the world. And I think it is true that there are some areas of advanced technology where that's not important. And certainly, some of the advances in artificial intelligence have been more about lots and lots of data and deep learning on that data, even in our top rate than it is about the human capital. But in most sectors of the advanced economy, the big technological advances are not coming just from data and capital. You have to have the human element.

And as long as that continues to be the case, I think that the direction China's presently heading will support political stability in the short-term but will underminethe productivity and growth of the Chinese tech sector in the medium and long-term. And I think watching that dynamic is going to be critically important for both the United States, China, and the world.

So anyway, some challenging news, some chilling news for those of us that are hoping that the US-China relationship can become more stable over time and not more confrontational. That's certainly not the direction we are heading right now. And I would also just point out that those decisions made right on the back of the 100th Communist Party Congress, and Xi Jinping's big plenary to the extent that people were hoping that after that, you could start to see more engagement, you just needed to get Xi through this significant period where he needed to be more nationalist. I don't think that's true at all. I think structurally, the Chinese government has, is, and will be oriented in a much more national champion direction, in part because they think that that's the way they win, and they feel much more confident about their model. Whether that confidence is properly misplaced, that's a very open question.

So anyway, interesting stuff. Hope everyone's doing well. Talk to you all real soon.

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