China; Asia; internet leaders; Alibaba; Amazon

Go East, Young Woman!

You won’t be surprised that I have a number of nerdy friends for whom analysis is significantly more important than emotion in making decisions. We are all men. We like data. We debate furiously. We rarely come to common conclusions and almost never act upon them.

We met, as usual, in an old man’s pub and were discussing our children’s futures: abilities, schools, subjects, career paths and so on. Then the most data-driven of us made a simple statement which achieved something rare: silence and then broad agreement.

“If we’re really serious about giving our children the best economic opportunities, we should get out of here and move to Asia.” Like the American pioneers heading west in the early 19th century, or the nationalist Chinese who fled Mao and the cultural revolution, we should make our own leap in search of greater opportunity and prosperity.

The rise of China in the last 5 years has been jaw dropping, particularly in terms of internet leaders - the giant digital companies which will create unimaginable wealth and opportunity during the lifetimes of our children. Of the 20 current leading, global internet companies across, 11 are from the US. The other 9 are Chinese. None are European.

Chart_ww_leaders_internet-1

The speed of change is even more startling. Five years ago just 2 Chinese companies – Tencent and Baidu - were in the top 20.

The parallels between the growth of the digital titans in the US over the last two decades and what is now happening in China are clear. The only difference is that the growth is greater, the speed even faster and the breadth of emerging companies is wider.

Development in both countries is geographically concentrated. US digital companies have clustered in the Bay Area around San Francisco and in Seattle to the north; China has its own East coast hubs – Hangzhou, Shenzen and Beijing. When I cycled around Hangzhou as a student in 1991, it was a relatively quiet city, full of bicycles, beautiful lakes covered with lilies and huge, cheap restaurants. I remember big, steamed buns for a few pence. Now the city looks like this.

Hangzhou

China faces many issues that commentators rightly worry about – trade wars; scale of debt; a shadowy, shadow banking system; an opaque political system. I am sure that there will be nasty lurches on the way but these must be stacked against huge, structural trends almost perfectly designed to create digitally-driven behemoths of a scale never seen before.

1. The scale of the country. It is obvious but digital businesses are scale businesses and, with 1.42 billion people, China is the most populous country in the world.

2. Educational firepower. In the next decade, China will graduate at least 4 times more science and technology graduates than the US. Maybe 5 times. Maybe 6.

3. Research and Development. China will spend more than the US on research and development this year according to the US National Science Board. Spend has more than doubled in the last 5 years and this is converting into ever higher grade patent applications. In 2017, the US still led the way in patent applications with 56,624 but just behind with 48,882 was China.[1]

4. A growing consumer society. The disposable income of urban Chinese consumers will double between 2010 and 2020 to reach the level of the South Korean consumer. The chart below represents an exploding, urban consumer society that is as large as the entire US population and which will rapidly grow in sophistication.[2]

Chart_Chinese_income-2

5. Venture Capital Finance. Risk capital is available in spades. Alibaba and Tencent with their half a trillion $ valuations are voracious investors in the next generation of start-ups. A generation of native, star investors has already emerged that matches the intelligence and risk-taking bravery of the generation that defined Silicon Valley. This allows emerging businesses to focus on growth without the need to go to financial markets for funding and all the distracting complications that brings.

6. Chinese entrepreneurial drive. Having lived in Singapore for a short time I have felt the power of Chinese entrepreneurial capitalism, red in tooth and claw. The Chinese are remarkable entrepreneurs – in 2016 around 5.3 million new businesses were created globally with 4.1 million of them in China. [3]

Not all will be led by the next Jack Ma or Pony Ma (founders of Alibaba and Tencent) but if sheer scale of entrepreneurial zeal is a driver of future opportunity, China is going to be a clear winner.

Bring these factors together and it is easy to understand why businesses such as Alibaba and Tencent continue to grow at such speed even though they are already so big. Compound growth rates of 40 to 60% are remarkable for small businesses but gob-smacking for $20bn+ turnover businesses like Alibaba. Even Amazon’s growth rates look modest by comparison.

Chart_Alibaba_Amazon

Who are the other Jack Mas I hear you say? Let me list a few names that you are less likely to have heard of: Lei Jun of Xiaomi; Ren Zhengfei of Huawei; Wang Xing of Meituan; Cheng Wei of Didi Chuxing; Liu Quiangdong of JD.com. There are so many more and they are fascinating characters of which we know and read little in the UK but some will become the equals of Bezos, Zuckerberg or Gates in the coming decade.

Our little band of middle-aged, middle-class men is too comfortable to move life around the globe. We lack the raw ambition we remember we once had. But for our offspring, exposure to China, its culture, its power and its growth will be essential. The Ewington family must spend as much time exploring the powerhouse of China as it does the museums of France and Italy.

But first we’ll watch Dirty Rich Asians to get us in the mood - after all, what is Singapore (a nation just 53 years old) if not a 50-kilometre-wide distillation of Chinese ambition, intelligence, determination and bling?

Crazy Rich Asians


  1. China Drives International Patent Applications to Record Heights, World International Property Organisation ↩︎

  2. Meet the Chinese consumer of 2020, McKinsey & Co ↩︎

  3. China Grows Business Numbers Faster Than Any Other Major Economy, UHY ↩︎

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About Tim Ewington

Co-founder of Shortlist Media. Previously co-founder of media strategy consultancy, Human Capital. Still innovating, consulting and investing.
  • London