The sharing economy exploded in China this year, with companies for all kinds of shareable objects taking part in this new business model. While there are businesses familiar to Westerners—shared offices, cars and rides—there are also ideas that seem a little kooky, such as shared basketballs and umbrellas. Although some call it innovative, many realize these companies are just “rental 2.0” companies, assisted by digital technology. As the concept reaches fever pitch, however, it is also facing a reality check, especially as many firms, ballooned by venture capital funds, start to show signs of failing.
Historians say that paper currency was invented by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty. Today, their descendants are taking the lead again: Young Chinese are abandoning cash. Shop anywhere in China–from a grand shopping mall to a small street vendor–and you can use your smartphone to pay. Of course, the wide acceptance of smartphones and 4G internet is one thing, the rise of fintech firms like Ant Financial is another. Yet to seriously phase out cash, authorities and professionals are pursuing something more than just QR codes: digital currencies based on blockchain technology. Despite the cracking down on unfavorable operations like ICOs, China is studying blockchain in a rather serious way.
WeChat is not just a messaging app. With nearly a billion active users, it is used to make voice calls, play games, read news, hail cars and more. With WeChat Pay, people use the app to send money and pay bills by scanning a QR code, and friends and families use WeChat to send lucky money during festivals. For many, WeChat is already indispensable. How did the company grow? What were the key decisions and strategies? In the fierce competition between WeChat pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, who will win? There are many questions about WeChat, but the app’s success is certain—for now.
At the enormous Pacific Department Store on Shanghai’s Huaihai Road, barriers block the street entrances and windows are shuttered. The store, which was one of the largest on one of the city’s busiest shopping streets for nearly two decades, closed in January. The shell of the store now sits incongruously opposite the K11 mall, which has been thriving ever since implementing a smart re-think of the shopping mall concept a couple of years ago. The lesson of the different fates of these two shopping centers is clear—adapt or die. Retail is not declining in China, it’s just changing.
On the surface, digital publishing would seem to be at an early stage in China. Observers say that traditional publishers are not pushing e-editions of their books very hard, and until recently, the government, which is still the industry’s dominant shareholder, has not put its weight behind the format. Look more closely, however, it’s clear that a new publishing ecosystem is already taking shape in China, but it’s not the Amazon co-prosperity sphere model. Instead, digital publishing platforms are becoming the dominant channel for young writers.
The rise of e-books and reading on digital devices has changed every part on the publishing production chain, affecting everyone from the editors, to the designers, to the marketing and sales people. Editors are spending more time on acquiring books and less time working on manuscripts. Designers become more flexible and strategic: they need to make sure a book won’t be ignored by skimmers who only glance at thumbnails on websites, and must ensure that texts are well-laid-out for reading on many kinds of mobile devices. But they’re not who need to change most. It’s the marketing and sales people who face an ever-more-challenging job.
Over the past two years, the Big Five publisher’s share of the e-book market on Amazon has dropped from 43% to roughly 23%. Publishers Weekly’s Apple iBook Bestseller list also includes self-published authors: on the Feb. 17 list, three of the top ten best sellers were self-published. As these numbers suggest, digitalization is not just changing which books reach the market, but how they are put together. For writers, choosing independent publication is no longer the shameful last resort it once was, and for average writers, this path raises the odds of success from nil to slim.
Digitalization has changed book reading, book production and book marketing, and it may ultimately even change the nature of books. Amazon’s Kindle e-reader sold out in 5.5 hours after it was first released in November 2007 and remained out of stock until April 2008. All over the world, a similar shift has been underway—slower in markets where bookstores and book sales are regulated, such as France and Germany; faster in more open markets, such as China, where more than 2 million digital book titles are now available and nearly half of all books sold are sold online. Yet surprisingly, most book buyers still end up with print books.
Bitcoin, a virtual currency traded online, was not invented in China, yet China is where 80% of the virtual “coins” are minted and 90% of the transactions are made. Currently, the global bitcoin market amounts to some $14.5 billion, roughly the same amount of money as Apple’s European back taxes. If the virtual currency’s popularity continues to grow, decisions made by Chinese investors and regulators may determine whether bitcoin fades to a historical footnote, like Napster or the eight-track tape, or becomes the silicon cornerstone of a new global financial order. A combination of factors thrust China into this decisive role.
One could be forgiven for thinking that after purchasing Uber’s China operations, Didi Chuxing—which now boasts over 300 million users and over 80% of China’s market—would be on easy street. But things are never that simple in the Chinese market. Figures have shown Didi is losing users and drivers. Under strict Chinese local governments’ new policies, Didi may face bigger challenges than Uber China. Meanwhile more people cast doubts over its business model. Boasting a sharing economy model, car-pooling, the company now relies more on providing car-hailing services with prices lower than taxis to maintain its scale. Once the subsidies withdrew, users walk away.