China’s tech old guard make way for young blood in AI, crypto era

Beijing is seeking to assure tech sector crackdown has passed as questions remain about direction of regulatory policy.

Jack Ma
The influence of "old guard" business leaders like Alibaba founder Jack Ma is on the wane, analysts say [File: Aly Song/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – Justin Sun’s biggest lesson from his mentor, Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, was how to use shared values to scale up a company quickly and manage larger and larger numbers of employees.

“We learned a lot from Alibaba and Jack Ma about trying to adapt our business,” Sun, the founder of global cryptocurrency network Tron, told Al Jazeera in a recent interview.

Sun, 32, and Ma, 58, represent different generations of Chinese entrepreneurs. But they have both navigated choppy regulatory waters amid a years-long campaign by the Chinese government to roll back the influence of its tech giants.

Ma, once the poster child for China’s entrepreneurship-fuelled economic growth, saw the initial public offering of his Ant Group – which at $37bn would have been the world’s largest – abruptly cancelled by Chinese regulators in November 2020, marking the onset of a broad regulatory crackdown that ushered in new rules governing everything from financing to cybersecurity.

Sun, who established a relationship with Ma at the Alibaba founder’s elite business school in Hangzhou, in 2017 completed his company’s initial coin offering (ICO), raising $70m, just days before China banned such fundraisers and shut down all local cryptocurrency exchanges.

Since then, Beijing has sought to assure firms that it intends to ease its grip on tech firms as it seeks to revive the economy following the end of its crippling “zero-COVID” strategy.

Central bank official Guo Shuqing has said Beijing’s crackdown on the tech sector is ‘basically’ over [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

Guo Shuqing, a high-ranking central bank official and financial regulator, said in January that the tech crackdown – which has wiped some $1 trillion off the market value of the sector – was “basically” over and private firms would be encouraged to “come out strong in leading economic growth, creating more jobs and competing globally”.

At around the same time, Beijing allowed ride-hailing app Didi back on app stores, ending 19 months of regulatory purgatory, during which the company shouldered a $1.2bn fine and was forced to delist from the New York Stock Exchange after only a six-month run.

Yet questions remain about the degree to which Chinese entrepreneurs’ trust has been eroded by the clampdown – and how younger generations may want to refashion the tech industry. There is also uncertainty about whether the crackdown is truly in the past. In February, Bao Fan, one of China’s best-known investment bankers, was reported unreachable by his company, joining a long list of prominent Chinese businessmen to have apparently disappeared into China’s opaque legal system.

Sun declined to discuss Beijing’s crackdown and his expectations for regulatory policy directly, but like a growing number of Chinese entrepreneurs, he runs his business out of Singapore. He has also given up his Chinese citizenship in favour of a Grenadian passport, which he says makes international travel easier. In 2019, Chinese business publication Caixin reported that Sun was being investigated by Chinese authorities and had been banned from leaving the country, claims he has dismissed as untrue.

“I’ve always wanted to be a global citizen,” said Sun, who served a stint as Grenada’s official representative at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“That’s why, for the last 10 years, I have been to 100 countries in the world. And also, I believe the success of cryptocurrencies is related to globalisation.”

Sun sees a divide between his and Ma’s generation based on the fields in which they operate: Whereas the older generation achieved success in fields such as e-commerce, real estate and finance, Sun’s peers are focusing on newer areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) learning and cryptocurrencies. These newer fields offer more potential for growth, Sun said, compared with areas Ma’s generation focused on that are already mature.

“Real estate, e-commerce, those traditional industries, have become full of competition, and they have reached the limits to grow their business in the future, but I think for blockchain, AI, these days (the potential) is unlimited,” he said.

Last week, the US Securities and Exchange Commission announced civil charges against Sun and three of his companies over alleged fraud and market manipulation. Eight celebrities, including actress Lindsay Lohan and rapper Akon, were charged with promoting Sun’s cryptocurrencies without disclosing they had been paid to do so.

Sun’s public representative directed inquiries about the case to a Twitter post in which the crypto entrepreneur said the charges “lacked merit” and that the SEC’s framework for crypto was underdeveloped.

China’s economy grew just 3 percent in 2022, one of its weakest performances in decades [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

Beijing’s efforts to put the tech crackdown in the rear-view mirror appear to fit into a larger push to revitalise the economy, which grew just 3 percent last year, its second-lowest rate in almost 50 years. During its annual parliamentary session last month, China inaugurated a new premier – Li Qiang, the former party boss of financial powerhouse Shanghai – and reshuffled its top economic team.

Speaking at China’s answer to Davos last week, Li aimed to reassure foreign business executives, including Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook, that the country would open up further.

On the same day, Ma, who has reportedly lived in Japan since last year, made an appearance in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, where he visited a school he co-founded and gave a speech about the importance of AI.

Karman Lucero, a fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale University, said the influence of the “old guard” of business leaders at tech giants such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent is “probably gone, or at least severely diminished compared to what it was before – as well as the culture they built, which was heavily influenced by Silicon Valley”.

“The key question is, what are [the new entrepreneurs] going to build instead, and is it going to be successful in the way they want?” Lucero told Al Jazeera.

While experts and businesspeople say it is too early to gauge the exact direction China’s tech scene will head post-crackdown, there have been some clues.

Beijing has repeatedly signalled that it wants companies to focus on sectors that are of strategic value to the state, such as semiconductors, AI and advanced manufacturing, amid growing competition and animosity with the United States.

At the same time, officials have expressed borderline disdain for the fields of established tech champions, such as social media, e-commerce and gaming – the so-called “platform economy”.

At the parliamentary session earlier this month, Tencent founder Pony Ma was conspicuously absent from the list of delegates, while Robin Li, head of search giant Baidu, William Lei Ding, founder of gaming group NetEase, and Wang Xiaochuan, head of online portal Sogou, were left out of a list of top advisers to the government.

Instead, the delegates’ list was stacked with representatives from AI and semiconductor firms, including Zhang Suxin, chair of chipmaker Hua Hong Semiconductor, and Liu Qingfeng, chair of AI group iFlytek.

The trend illustrated by Sun, Ma and other Chinese entrepreneurs who are moving their assets, businesses and families abroad is worrisome for the “Chinese economic fibre”, said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

“These are the guys who made a difference over the last 10-20 years in bringing China forward,” Wuttke told Al Jazeera. “[The crackdown] was an incredible headwind for Chinese entrepreneurs, and still a lot remains to be done in order to regain these people’s trust.”

Robin Li
Baidu CEO Robin Li is among a number of prominent Chinese business leaders who were recently left off a list of top government advisers [File: Yingzhi Yang/Reuters]

Nevertheless, it is not all smooth sailing for Chinese entrepreneurs once they move abroad either.

Rui Ma, a California-based investor and tech firm adviser, said Chinese tech entrepreneurs in the US she consults with often express concern about being discriminated against and distrusted because of their identity, amid increasingly tense relations between Beijing and Washington.

“They feel very strongly pressured not by Chinese policy but by international policy and worry they cannot do business in the international markets because they are being judged unfairly” due to their identity, she told Al Jazeera.

Besides operating in new areas of interest, Beijing also expects tech firms “to be better social actors”, Lucero said.

“That includes a mix of needing to treat workers better; needing to do a better job of being transparent about how they handle consumers’ data; needing to do a better job censoring information and controlling content that the party might find unfavourable.”

The key word is not crackdown but “compliance”, said Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank. “There’s some adjustment for the tech giants in order to reflect the new reality,” Wang told Al Jazeera.

From a big-picture, political perspective, Beijing wants its tech champions to play by the rules and support the government’s plan for “high quality … balanced growth” in the coming decades, Wang said.

Central to that is President Xi Jinping’s campaign for “common prosperity”, meant to keep the wealth gap at a minimum, despite criticism that related policies stifle innovation.

Huang Weiping, professor of economics at Renmin University, put the expectations facing the industry in blunt terms.

“If you dance to the main tune, there will be no problem; on the contrary, if you violate the main tune, there will obviously be a problem,” Huang told Al Jazeera.

“Let me say this much,” Huang added. “It was not Jack Ma who created the era. It was the era that created Jack Ma.”

Source: Al Jazeera