China is leading the race for technology and innovation in various aspects of people's daily lives, according to a newly released report.
South China Morning Post has published its "China Internet Report 2019", unveiling trends in China's internet landscape this year and recapping the achievements of Chinese tech companies for 2018.
China has been a pioneer in the construction of super apps - where multiple apps are slotted within a larger umbrella app - and its success in this field has attracted foreign developers to follow suit. WeChat and Alipay are the country's most widely-used super apps, both amassing more than one billion monthly active users (MAU). Meituan, another popular super app in China, has 289 million MAU.
Influence has been felt abroad as foreign apps such as Go-Jek, LINE, and Facebook are also transforming themselves into super apps, as the platforms continue to offer new services such as mobile payment tools.
As for Social+ apps, which leverage people’s penchant for social media interaction, entertainment, shopping and learning, Taobao, Pinduoduo, and Mogu have offered group buying and live streaming services. In February 2019, Amazon launched its own Amazon Live which features livestreamed video of hosts demonstrating products, which viewers can buy directly from a carousel that displays below the video. Similarly, Instagram's checkout service, launched in March 2019, has enabled 130 million users to buy items by tapping on product tags, all without leaving the app.
The report also highlighted 5G's future in China. Currently, China’s three telecoms operators are piloting 5G in more than a dozen cities with a total population pool of 167 million. Citing Forrester Research findings, the report said almost 60% of China’s estimated technology spending of US$256 billion in 2019 will be allocated to telecommunications.
AI is another major element in play for China, including uses in access control, customised recommendations, surveillance, and smart city solutions. In Shenzhen, passengers can scan their faces on a tablet-sized screen mounted on the entrance gate, and have their fare automatically deducted from their linked accounts. This showcases how facial recognition and machine learning technology can grant users faster access with reduced complexity, even if it is rather unsettling for some to see in practice.
Other implementations of related tech include the customised recommendations from JD.com's 3D Fitting Room, which enables shoppers to try on clothes through a customised avatar with similar hair, face, and body dimensions. Surveillance and smart city solutions are also being adopted to catch criminals, enforce traffic laws, identify citizens, and controlling crowds and traffic. Though there are important questions to ask about the ethical issues these present as related to privacy and potentially sinister uses of this level of state omniscience.
On that subject in 2020, China has stated it will rank all of its citizens based on a “social credit” system. The system will rely on a series of rewards and punishments meant to encourage people and businesses to behave closer in line with societal codes. However, there has been widespread criticism of the assigning of point values to such a nebulous concept as morality, and again, ulterior motives for its use beyond the goal of a harmonious society.
Moving away from upcoming trends, the report also identified four important themes from the last year, which remain relevant to China's current internet landscape:
In 2018, Chinese internet giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) invested in 280 companies - with 42 of those being overseas investments -an increase of 11.1%.
The number of internet users in rural China has also increased by 13 million to 222 million in 2018, increasing the penetration rate from 35% to 38%. Time spent online increased by 30% last year.
Tech giants, including Alipay and JD.com, extended their Social+ plans, launching group buy functions within their apps.
Last but not least, the Chinese government made its presence felt among fintech, gaming, and content-driven internet companies, which continued to face tight restrictions by authorities. The CCP suspended licensing for new games for nine months in 2018, causing the gaming industry to experience its slowest revenue growth in over a decade. Furthermore, in January 2018, the Cyberspace Administration of China scrubbed the web of more than seven million items, deleting more than 9,300 smartphone apps to screen out information deemed inappropriate or harmful.
Whatever else, one thing is clear, the landscape for China moving forward is far from dull.