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These Were China’s Biggest Tech Moments of 2019

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For China’s rumbling, unpredictable tech sector, this year brought a torrent of consequential news, ranging from the quirky to the politically heavy, all brought to you on melatonin-sapping screens that were probably made in China. In case you missed them, RADII has compiled a list of the seven biggest stories in China tech this year, so read on and get up to speed.

The coherent theme that emerges from this year’s RADII tech roundup is maturity. All seven of this year’s stories — pushback from overworked employees, a tycoon’s retirement, esports glory, an official endorsement for blockchain, political blacklisting, 5G leadership, and a popular video platform — wouldn’t have been possible if China’s technology industry weren’t in a position of newfound sophistication, diversity, enormity and confidence.

China’s era as the factory of the world, merely mass producing electronics conceived elsewhere, has long since ended. But also gone are the days when China was playing a hasty game of catch-up, its companies designing lesser quality goods to compete as cheap alternatives to international brands. Today’s Chinese tech companies are at the forefront of innovation, from Huawei’s phones with ultra-zoomable cameras to Tencent pioneering the all-in-one app experience.

So here they are, the seven biggest stories in Chinese tech this year:

996 Backlash

This story revolves around the legions of employees working behind the scenes to make Chinese technology thrive. It’s a problem faced by many countries, one that may in some cases help companies meet short-term growth targets, but which in the long run destroys employees’ health and happiness — overwork.

The 996 culture at many Chinese technology companies came under hardcore scrutiny this year. The term 996 refers to the practice of companies expecting employees to work from 9:00 AM. to 9:00 PM, six days a week. While the phrase originally carried positive connotations of pride and assiduous work habits, it quickly became an unfavorable buzzword for talking about the negative health effects and bleak personal life that comes with an unremitting work schedule.

Related:

GitHub Protest Over Chinese Tech Companies’ “996” Culture Goes Viral

This year, a GitHub repository highlighting Chinese tech workers’ complaints of 996 became one of the fastest growing repositories in the history of the coding site. The repository is called “996.ICU” because of the likelihood of having to check into a hospital ICU if you have to work 996.

The 996 GitHub protest emerged in March, but even as we reach the end of 2019, debate around the practice continues to rumble on.

Jack Ma Leaves Alibaba

A huge story in China this year was Jack Ma stepping down as Chairman of Alibaba. The ecommerce company was founded by Ma in 1999 and is now the seventh largest company in the world, with a market value of over 480 billion USD. Ma stepped down on September 10, his 55th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the company.

His transformation from cash-strapped English teacher to sleek tech mogul reflects China’s own meteoric rise. He is now China’s richest man, worth an estimated 41.8 billion USD, and is one of the country’s most well-known public figures; bookstores across the country carry volumes toting his entrepreneurial advice and quoting his many pithy business aphorisms. Youku and YouTube are filled with Ma’s inspirational speeches, given in both Mandarin and English, and often leading to audiences fighting back tears.

Related:

Jack Ma Steps Down as Alibaba Chairman, Prompting Memes and Memories

Soon after his departure, Alibaba broke online sales records for its annual Singles Day shopping spree, generating more than 38 billion USD in 24 hours. Ma now plans to dedicate his energies to philanthropy.

Esports Glory

When it comes to the esports arena of competitive gaming, China has clearly showed up to play. FunPlus Phoenix, a Chinese League of Legends team, just reigned victorious at the LoL Worlds 2019 — the second Chinese team in a row to win the prestigious tournament, after Invictus Gaming made history with last year’s win. At the competition’s conclusion, it was announced that next year’s finals will be held in Shanghai.

Related:

China’s Esports Professionals: Long Hours and Low Pay, But Love for the Job

The Chinese metropolis is quickly becoming an esports hub, after hosting this year’s International Dota 2 Championships, the largest esports event in the world. To accompany the youth-driven fanfare, government technocrats are enacting policies to secure China’s leading position in a burgeoning industry rich in both revenue and soft power. Beijing’s Haidian district is now offering 10 million RMB (about 1.4 million USD) in subsidies to anyone who wants to build an esports venue.

But young gamers beware, the government also imposed restrictions on gameplay for online users under 18 that aim to curb gaming addiction among children — a side effect might be lackluster performances from the Chinese players of tomorrow at the tournaments they host.

Xi Loves Blockchain… Or Does He?

Perhaps the most surprising China tech news this year was Xi Jinping’s ringing praise of blockchain technology, an astonishing about-face given that China’s financial regulators banned initial coin offerings in 2017 and forced local cryptocurrency exchanges to close.

During a speech in October, Xi called blockchain “an important breakthrough” and said China would aim to “take the leading position in the emerging field of blockchain.” Immediately after Xi’s comments, cryptocurrencies associated with China surged, and many in the crypto scene were ecstatic. However, their euphoria was short-lived.

The “crypto market’s overreaction” to Xi’s comments and a front-page piece from state news agency Xinhua announcing Bitcoin as “The First Successful Application of Blockchain” simply triggered yet another crackdown. Exchanges and even bitcoin-themed events were targeted and the digital currency’s value dropped as China seemingly cooled once more on the idea.

What the future holds for bitcoin in China is once again anyone’s guess. But prospectors would do well to treat any new rise with caution — if the internet is any precursor, technologies that are originally hailed as forces for decentralized connectivity and personal freedom can quickly be outfitted with draconian controls that reinforce state power.

Huawei Under Fire

For Huawei, China’s tech behemoth that specializes in telecommunications equipment, computers and smartphones, 2019 was a constant struggle against international pressure. In May, the Trump administration placed the company on an “entity list,” prohibiting American tech firms from doing business with it. This caused real panic that the company’s smartphones would be cut off from Google’s Android operating system and app ecosystem, pretty much ensuring customers around the world would abandon the devices.

Related:

The Unfinished Story of Huawei: Phones, 5G, and “Harmony” at the Heart of the Trade War

In response, Huawei announced plans to build its own operating system and nurture its own app ecosystem. A temporary reprieve on the U.S. policy allowed Google to supply Huawei’s already existing products. But Huawei’s new Mate 30 Pro, which many industry analysts describe as the best smartphone Huawei has ever released, does not have Google services or apps (though there are rumors that that may change).

On a more frivolous note, Huawei’s P30 super-zoomable camera spurred a load of hilarious memes.

The 5G rollout begins

Speculation about the fifth-generation of mobile internet connectivity has filled our mental bandwidth in recent years with promises of lightning-fast streaming, uploading, and downloading, as well as wider coverage areas, more stable connections, and greater integration between smart devices.

For China, 5G ushers in an era of great expectations, as Chinese telecom giant Huawei is arguably the best in the business in developing 5G equipment, and is poised to dominate much of the global 5G infrastructure market.

Related:

Trevor Noah and Chinese Media Swap Notes on 5G and Huawei

The rollout of 5G in China has begun. At a tech conference in late October, government officials and representatives of China’s three largest telecom companies (China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom) revealed 5G data packages.

5G data plans in China now range from 128RMB (about 18USD) to 599RMB (about 85USD) and are available in some 50 cities. The mass adoption of 5G won’t happen overnight, but will happen gradually as telecom infrastructure is built out in smaller cities.

China Mobile hopes to have 70 million 5G users by the end of 2020, according to China Daily. And if all this isn’t enough, the Chinese government has already convened a working group on initial research into 6G.

The Rise and Rise of TikTok

TikTok is a short video sharing app owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance. It has captured the hearts and minds of America’s children, adolescents, and even middle-aged mothers. But the Beautiful Country’s politicians are less than excited that the app comes from the Middle Kingdom.

“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” wrote U.S. senators Charles E. Schumer of New York and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, asking the director of national intelligence to investigate whether the Chinese app presents “national security risks.”

Related:

TikTok Launches High-Speed Train Partnership in China, Comes Under Fire in the US

The US Army recently announced it was reviewing the app’s collection and use of user data. In response to increased scrutiny, TikTok has stressed that US user data is kept in the States, and representatives say they would not comply with Chinese censorship requests (although there have been doubts raised about whether this is how Chinese censorship really works).

marco rubio tiktok bytedance china censorship data

Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweets about TikTok.

The censorship issue particularly came into focus after user Feroza Aziz uploaded a video purporting to be of make-up tips, but actually speaking out on the treatment of China’s Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and found her account subsequently blocked. TikTok admitted the removal of Aziz’s video and apologized, before it emerged that parent company ByteDance was reportedly looking at ways to “ringfence” the app amid US scrutiny.

TikTok was downloaded in the US more than 41 million times in 2019 alone, but its popularity goes well beyond the US market. Its biggest user base is actually India, where it was downloaded more than 190 million times in 2019.

The app now has more than 500 million monthly users. It was the third most downloaded app in 2019, punching out Facebook and Instagram. Interestingly, 41 percent of users are between the ages of 16 and 24, meaning the app is a quintessential part of youth for many around the world.

With its kooky videos giving users an endless supply of humor and dopamine, TikTok’s most competitive trait is likely its sheer addictiveness; the average TikTok user spends 52 minutes per day on the app.

Related:

Digitally China Podcast: TikTok’s Rise to Global Fame

That concludes our seven biggest tech stories of 2019. We hope you enjoyed reading, whether you’ve done so over 4G or 5G, whether on an Apple or Huawei device, whether you’re tuning in after a 996 day of overwork, or after an even more stressful esports tournament.

Remember to rip away your child’s phone after too many hours on TikTok, and don’t be afraid to scold your partner for spending too much money on Taobao. But most importantly, sign up for our newsletter by clicking the subscription box at the top-right of the page.

Zach Hollo
    J. Zach Hollo is a RADII contributor currently based in Guangzhou. He recently competed a master's degree in international affairs at National Chengchi University in Taipei, where he studied as a Fulbright scholar. Before that, he taught English in China's Hunan and Henan provinces. As an undergraduate, he attended Northwestern University's campus in Doha, Qatar, where he majored in journalism.