With China tariffs delayed, Beijing faces startup dilemma

Plus Taiwan's Silicon Valley failure, H-1B approvals down, Intel's R&D spending, and India

China is facing a challenging juxtaposition in the coming years: can the government remain in control of business and media while also opening up the country to the knowledge economy?

China has uplifted more humans in a shorter period of time than any other country in the history of the planet. That mesmerizing growth engine, though, is starting to face an intense slog. Economic growth has slowed considerably, and while there are vagaries to these indicators, it is clear that China needs to rebuild its economy as it migrates from industrials into services.

The future (of course) is all the buzzwords that linger in Silicon Valley coffee shops: innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship, mixed in with some Chinese flavors like indigenous technology development. China has designs to be the world-leader in semiconductors and artificial intelligence. To get there though, it needs to create the intellectual environment to push the frontiers of science and technology.

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That’s the debate happening right now. On one side, you have this discussion from the New York Times’ Asia business columnist Li Yuan from this weekend. Chinese entrepreneurs are supposedly fleeing the country and seeking safer waters as the government clamps down on dissent and further censors China’s already narrow internet.

Few are predicting a crash, but worries over China’s long-term prospects are growing. Pessimism is so high, in fact, that some businesspeople are comparing China’s potential future to another country where the government seized control of the economy and didn’t ease up: Venezuela.

Only one-third of China’s rich people say they are very confident in the country’s economic prospects, according to a recent survey of 465 wealthy individuals by Hurun, a Shanghai-based research firm. Two years ago, nearly two-thirds said they were very confident. Those who have no confidence at all rose to 14 percent, more than double the level of 2018. Nearly half said they were considering migrating to a foreign country or had already started the process.

Minxin Pei, a well-known writer on China’s business environment and politics, was quoted by Yuan as saying:

“It’s clear to the private businesspeople that the moment the government doesn’t need them, it’ll slaughter them like pigs. This is not a government that respects the law. It can change on a dime.”

China’s government furiously denied the article’s contention, arguing in its international-focused mouthpiece that:

Because some Western media’s always tend to smear or even subvert China’s political system. Take Chen Tianyong’s story. With ulterior motives, the New York Times tells stories of certain Chinese individuals and then exaggerates the fact, thus declaring that there are serious problems in China’s economy and political system. This is their consistent practice and some foreign people who do not understand China will fall into the Western media’s trap. Chinese people always need to be on the alert for such ill-intentioned articles.

(Really, it’s fun to read the Global Times in the morning, in the way that taking a New York City subway at 8:15am on Monday morning is fun).

Yet, for all the entrepreneurs supposedly leaving, business opportunities remain robust. China’s government announced a huge economic development plan to create a “Greater Bay Area” region around Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau and others to compete directly with California’s Bay Area (The Lesser Bay Area: Even Better Without High-Speed Rail!™). The goal is to build upon the region’s manufacturing prowess and increasingly turn it into a source for technology innovation. If the blueprint’s economic goals are achieved, the region would rival the United Kingdom in economic size.

But that’s a big “if.”

Few areas of the economy show the tension between openness and control better than the video game industry. China has once again stopped approving licenses for games in the country last week, after a brief session of approvals following last year’s nine-month long hiatus. Tencent, which produces some of the country’s most popular games, has lost nearly a quarter of its value in the meantime, even while it puts new streaming rules into effect to try to please the government.

China has incredible potential to lead in technology (and frankly beat the United States) if it can figure out how to open its economy, perhaps not to foreign competition, but at least to its own talent. Yuan quotes several entrepreneurs saying that Trump’s trade war with China may be the country’s last hope for a more open environment. Trump’s delay implementing tariffs on China this weekend, though, highlights the danger of relying on external forces to push domestic change. Only the Chinese can rebuild China’s economy.

Across the strait, Taiwan’s Silicon Valley is fizzling

Photo by keel via Getty Images

Becoming the next Silicon Valley is every government’s dream, although few seem capable of putting all the pieces together to make it happen. Take Taiwan, which has made innovation a key watchword as it attempts to survive in the penumbra of China’s overwhelming economy.

It’s Silicon Valley plans are fizzling from lack of action and a stagnant economy according to a translated article in the Taiwan Gazette:

But according to a member of the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the Agency’s goal is hindered by cumbersome business regulations and restrictive visas and work permits.

“Although [the government was] targeted to issue 2200 visas, the Plan so far has disbursed a mere two,” said Jason Hsu, a KMT legislator with experience in Taiwan’s innovation sector.

Hsu said the government has not succeeded in attracting any global entrepreneurs to the island since the plan was implemented. The Agency has been slow to implement the Asia Silicon Valley plan, prioritizing other aspects, or simply failing to match action with words.

Compounding Taiwan’s global talent crunch is competition from China and the US, with graduates moving house to take advantage of higher wages and better employment opportunities.

You can’t build an innovative economy if the talent can’t or won’t show up.

U.S. slowing H-1B visas

Image by Blue Diamond Gallery used under Creative Commons

Meanwhile, the United States has plenty of talent that wants to show up of course, but increasingly wants to prevent at least some of them from staying in the country.

We previously talked about how the Trump administration was attempting to simplify some elements of the H-1B process. Now, USCIS has released new data that shows a decline in the approval rate for H-1B visa applications. In 4Q18 only 75% of H1-B applications were approved, compared to 83% and 92% in 2017 and 2016 respectively.

The application process itself has also gotten more intensive, with reviewing agencies requesting additional evidence from roughly 60% of corporate applicants in the fourth quarter of 2018, compared to 46% and 28% in 2017 and 2016, respectively. The Wall Street Journal noted that Apple, Microsoft and others had a 99% approval rate, while Capgemini was much lower at 60%.

Maybe some of these applications are marginal, and protecting the wages of American workers is a fair compromise. More transparency here would be very helpful. But if the United States wants to maintain its technological edge, it needs smart and talented workers to congregate here. These new rates do not bode well.

Intel investing heavily to regain lost ground in the battle for chip supremacy

Photo via Intel Corporation

Written by Arman Tabatabai

At a press event last week, Intel’s newly appointed CEO Bob Swan reiterated the company’s strategy of investing heavily in growth markets outside of its core competencies. The company has taken heat for racking up its R&D bills, but Swan insisted that the chip giant needs to spend that money after struggling in recent years to keep up with the industry’s transition to new technologies.

Intel invested nearly $30 billion last year in R&D with a focus on memory, 5G, and graphical processing units (GPUs), which are seen as the best option for artificial intelligence, machine learning, and any use case needing strong parallelized processing capabilities. The FT quoted Swan as saying :

…“If we want to play in a much larger market we’re going to continue to invest more in R&D, there’s no question about that,” he said. “We don’t want to get too penny wise and pound-foolish so we don’t invest for the future.”

Traditional brand names chipmakers have lost dominant share by investing heavily in whatever was driving profits at the time, while ignoring emerging tech that has become the primary source of growth. Intel is now paying for their failure to move sooner.

Are India’s nationalist policies creating a closed internet?

Photo by MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

Written by Arman Tabatabai

India is facing a similar dilemma to China on how open it wants to make its economy.

India’s government announced draft policies that will dictate operational requirements for ecommerce, social, and messaging companies. Following the country’s heightened focus around data localization, which we have discussed before, the set of proposals announced over the weekend would require internet companies to maintain locally-housed data centers and servers, impose a legal framework for regulating the movement of user data across borders, provide the government with access to company data stored abroad upon request, and force ecommerce websites or apps operating in India to have a locally registered business entity.

At the same time, the government also announced plans to institute policies that would require social networking and messaging platforms to swiftly remove content deemed “unlawful” or threatening to the “sovereignty and integrity of India.”

While the Indian government is trying to take a hardline approach to avoid the misconduct that has followed the expansion of big tech, they’re also putting further pressure on companies that already face a tougher, more expensive operating environment behind India’s “national champion” policy push as we’ve harped on before.

As India continues to move towards nationalist policies that make it difficult for companies to compete, a Chinese-style closed and censored internet increasingly seems likely.


  • We’re excited since Little Brown & Co just announced a retrospective from Netflix co-founder and original CEO, Marc Randolph, coming this fall and entitled “That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea.”
  • Lots of other book coverage coming this week including Billonnaire Raj by James Crabtree, The Next Factory of the World by Irene Yuan Sun, and The Next Billion Users by Payal Arora.
  • More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure, and “why can’t we build things”


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This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

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