China’s financial sector used to be famous for its poor service and imperviousness to innovation. Even today, when customers go to make a transaction at one of the country’s big state-run banks, they often take a bag of snacks with them—they know they’re in for a long wait. But things are changing fast in the Middle Kingdom. A new generation of digital finance firms is taking the country—and the global markets—by storm in everything from digital payments and micro-lending to insurance and wealth management. How will China’s lumbering state-run banks react? Will tightening regulation nip this revolution in the bud?
Ioana Kraft began her career in international law, and moved to China 14 years ago. Since 2009, she has been the General Manager of the European Union Chamber of Commerce’s Shanghai chapter, working tirelessly to promote the interests of European businesses operating in eastern China. In this interview, she discusses the challenges and opportunities European businesses face in China.
As the Chinese economy shifts from exports and investment toward domestic consumption, the country is counting on the middle class to drive consumption levels higher. A good reason to be optimistic is that the growing middle class club, with more millennials, is getting more comfortable with borrowing. Yet it is also a worrying phenomenon because the amount of consumer debt keeps climbing. Meanwhile, the red-hot property market has always been a heavy burden on Chinese households and has been getting even heavier in recent years. Will China’s middle class be derailed? Should we worry about the finances of Chinese middle class?
In the eyes of insiders, if you are not talking about “AI and Finance,” then you risk being left behind–just as stubborn holdouts in another era were stranded when they failed to accept the Internet. Traditionally, finance has had two core functions: to lower transaction costs and to improve asset pricing. The use of the Internet has undermined the first by enabling more direct transactions, and AI is now disrupting the second by improving the speed and accuracy of asset pricing. Threatened by this are services like asset allocation, investment advisory and insurance pricing, which affects not only banks, but also investment and insurance firms.
Economic changes and government policies are driving millions of China’s migrant workers away from the wealthy coastal regions back to the less developed western regions. The trend is a clear sign that a fundamental change to China’s economy is in progress, as a growth model that lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty starts to slow. From the early 1990s onwards, China’s double-digit GDP growth was fueled largely by the cheap labor provided by people leaving their farms in China’s poorer inland provinces to find work in the factories springing up along the coast. Now this has changed.
Imagine a city where commuters are chauffeured to work by self-driving cars and artificial intelligence systems control every power plant, traffic light and light bulb, making road accidents, power cuts and even traffic jams a thing of the past. Thanks to 5G, the latest protocol for mobile communications, this vision may be realized soon. The world’s leading telecoms companies are already testing the next generation of wireless internet and the first 5G services could be rolled out in 2019. China and the US are locked in a furious battle for control of this and the winner will gain a big economic advantage for years to come.
One of the world’s most high-profile China experts, Shaun Rein made his name by highlighting new trends in the Chinese economy years before the Western media caught on. In 2012, his first book, The End of Cheap China, highlighted that China’s low-cost manufacturing miracle was coming to an end. Two years later, he correctly predicted the rise of a new generation of innovation-led Chinese companies in The End of Copycat China. In his third book, The War for China’s Wallet, he tells us that it has never been more critical for brands to understand the Chinese market.
Decades of breakneck development in China have taken a terrible toll on the air, water, and soil. The good news is that the government has started a massive anti-pollution campaign, investing at least $477 billion in environmental protection and shutting down thousands of factories. While many are being driven out of business by the campaign, it’s also creating new opportunities for green technology companies and pushing manufacturing companies to upgrade. And although a government-led campaign, further clean-up efforts can be made by private companies as local governments search for clean solutions.
What makes Chinese consumers tick? That’s the question Chris Reitermann, CEO of Ogilvy China, has been puzzling over for the last two decades. Reitermann began his career at advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather in the 1990s, moving to Beijing in 2000 to set up the digital agency OgilvyInteractive. Since then, he has risen to head up the company’s entire operations in China. In this interview, he discusses the dramatic changes that have taken place in Chinese advertising during his time here, why China has much to learn from India on running a great campaign, and what the industry may look like by 2027.
It’s a comeback story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Three years ago, China’s once all-powerful liquor maker Kweichow Moutai looked to be on the ropes. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign had dealt a vicious blow to the country’s most famous spirit brand—for years a staple on every government banquet table—and the company’s profits and share price had taken a hammering. By January 2014, Moutai’s shares were worth just over RMB 119 ($18.31) per share—a fall of 50% in 14 months. With no end to the crackdown in sight, some questioned whether the legendary distiller would ever recover.
Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa have been catching on very quickly. Google reports that it sells a voice-controlled speaker every second. While this could just be a fad, some analysts argue that the voice-activated speakers may mark the biggest shift in consumer technology since the smartphone. “Humans don’t really communicate that effectively using text,” says Richard Watson, a futurist in London. Vocal computing should speed up a lot of queries, given that most people can speak much faster than they can type. What has voice-control changed? What are the new opportunities vocal computing will offer?
As the world’s most populous country, China should have the potential to become the world’s most profitable music market, yet it is far away from that—China was the 12th largest market in 2016, with $202 million in revenue compared to the US’s No.1 ranking of $5.3 billion. But there are important differences in the way music is consumed that may give China a business edge. Led by internet firms like Tencent, China has adjusted to the digital future of music more quickly, with a whopping 96% of music revenue from digital releases and 75% of that number coming from streaming sales.
China has been involved in Africa for decades, with total investments reaching $3.5 trillion by the end of 2015, nearly seven times the 2007 amount. Over 10,000 Chinese firms are operating there, handling 12% of Africa’s industrial production. Now, in addition to the traditional large construction projects, Chinese firms are also getting involved in retail markets like smartphone and home appliances. As China’s momentum in Africa has picked up, so too has the need to expand beyond economic involvement. A key event happened in July 2017, when China dispatched military personnel to set up its first overseas base in Djibouti, the small but strategically-placed country on the Gulf of Aden.
Like its whole economy, China’s auto market grew at breakneck pace in the 2000s, and while it is slowing down, it still contains enormous potential in terms of both raw sales and innovation as China shifts toward electric. The Chinese government is actively promoting new-energy vehicles, offering subsidies that amount to about 23% of the price of a vehicle. And consumers, many of whom no longer consider car ownership as a status symbol, are more willing to buy electric cars. Yet despite favorable policies and growing market demand, there are challenges ahead: lack of power stations, fragmented manufacturing of power batteries and insufficient innovation.
When talking about the Chinese wine market, most Westerners think of baijiu, a strong alcoholic beverage made from grain. But young Chinese have now developed their taste for various non-Chinese wines—red, white and sparkling—and wine can be found at parties, banquets and even dinners serving strongly-flavored Chinese foods, such as hotpot. Claudia Masüger, a businesswoman from Switzerland who has been importing wines to China for over a decade, says the Chinese are becoming more sophisticated in their taste for wine, caring not just for wines, but for pairing food with the right variety of wine. Furthermore, the market for western wine in China is even larger than imagined.
Chinese tech giant Tencent surpassed Facebook in market value this November, and is the first Asian company worth more than $500 million. Unlike Facebook, which earns 97% of its revenue from advertising, online advertising only represents 16.9% of Tencent’s revenue, according to the company’s Q3 2017 report–lagging behind domestic competitors like Alibaba in terms of ads gain. Determined now to gain a larger slice of the digital advertising market, Tencent focuses on improving targeting and algorithms to intensify ads on its ubiquitous platform WeChat while not undermining the user experience, as well as leveraging opportunities in the company’s other products and services, including mobile games.
BGI, China’s biggest genetics company, offers genetic testing services around the world and did an IPO on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 2017. In 2016, the company recorded revenues of RMB 1.7 billion ($261 million), with a net profit of RMB 350 million ($54 million)–an increase of 28% over the previous year. However, in a country prone to market hype, there are those who view BGI’s dramatic stock performance with a dash of skepticism: The market valuation of BGI is high, mainly because there is room to imagine future developments in the genomics industry. BGI’s future success will hinge on its ability to lead the technology change, and that is no small challenge.
What does it mean to have a mind? What is the nature of intelligence? Such questions have motivated Brian Christian, a computer scientist who holds a philosophy degree. He has been studying the gaps and overlaps between humans and machines, and investigated dehumanized communication as a result of increasing machine interactions in his bestseller The Most Human Human. In his second book, Algorithms to Live By, co-authored with cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths, he says that computer science actually gives us a way of thinking in new terms about what it means to be rational.
Are smartphones making us smarter? Bosses are especially concerned about this at the workplace because people check their phones as often as 150 times a day–meaning we may be distracted more than 50% of the time at work and have lower productivity. However, our devices are good for relationship building, and having a good friend at work tends to extend an employee’s stay at a job. In addition, smartphone use helps ensure that the workday never really ends and work time can extend into evenings and weekends. This could be both good and bad news because long hours can translate into lower productivity and, eventually, illness.
In the summer of 2017, MSCI finally agreed to include China mainland stocks in its global benchmark equities indices. The decision means Chinese stocks will become a must-have part of many investor’s portfolios. Indeed, it’s a big opportunity for foreign investors, but the risk management is tricky in many regards. For one thing, speculative mom-pop retail investors have been dominating the Chinese stock market and for another, the state-owned firms have intervened in the trading market to a worrying degree. How will the market change and what can investors expect from this volatile yet promising market?