China has new US$1.4 trillion plan to seize the world’s tech crown from the US
- The tech investment push is part of a fiscal package waiting to be signed off by the National People’s Congress, which convenes this week
- This initiative will reduce China’s dependence on foreign technology, echoing objectives set forth previously in the ‘Made in China 2025’ programme
Beijing is accelerating its bid for global leadership in key technologies, planning to pump more than a trillion dollars into the economy through the roll-out of everything from next-generation wireless networks to artificial intelligence (AI).
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“Nothing like this has happened before, this is China’s gambit to win the global tech race,” said Digital China Holdings chief operating officer Maria Kwok, as she sat in a Hong Kong office surrounded by facial recognition cameras and sensors. “Starting this year, we are really beginning to see the money flow through.”
Maria Kwok’s company is a government-backed information technology systems integration provider, among many that are jumping at the chance. In the southern city of Guangzhou, Digital China is bringing half a million units of project housing online, including a complex three quarters the size of Central Park in New York City. To find a home, a user just has to log on to an app, scan their face and verify their identity. Leases can be signed digitally via smartphone and the renting authority is automatically flagged if a tenant’s payment is late.
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China is no stranger to far-reaching plans with massive price tags that appear to achieve little. There is no guarantee this programme will deliver the economic rejuvenation its proponents promise. Unlike previous efforts to resuscitate the economy with “dumb” bridges and highways, this newly laid digital infrastructure will help national champions develop cutting-edge technologies.
China is not alone in pumping money into the technology sector as a way to get out of the post-coronavirus economic slump. Earlier this month, South Korea said AI and wireless communications would be at the core of it its “New Deal” to create jobs and boost growth.
The 10 trillion yuan that China is estimated to spend from now until 2025 encompasses areas typically considered leading edge, such as AI and IoT, as well as items such as ultra-high voltage lines and high-speed rail, according to the government-backed China Centre for Information Industry Development. More than 20 of mainland China’s 31 provinces and regions have announced projects totaling over 1 trillion yuan with active participation from private capital, a state-backed newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Separate estimates by Morgan Stanley put new infrastructure at around US$180 billion each year for the next 11 years – or US$1.98 trillion in total. Those calculations also include power and rail lines. That annual figure would be almost double the past three-year average, the investment bank said in a March report that listed key stock beneficiaries including companies such as China Tower Corp, Alibaba, GDS Holdings, Quanta Computer and Advantech Co.
Beijing’s half-formed vision is already stirring a plethora of stocks, a big reason why five of China’s 10 best-performing stocks this year are tech plays like networking gear maker Dawning Information Industry and Apple supplier GoerTek. The bare outlines of the master plan were enough to drive pundits toward everything from satellite operators to broadband providers.
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It is unlikely that US companies will benefit much from the tech-led stimulus and in some cases they stand to lose existing business. Earlier this year, when the country’s largest telecoms carrier China Mobile awarded contracts worth 37 billion yuan for 5G base stations, the lion’s share went to Huawei and other Chinese companies. Sweden’s Ericsson got only a little over 10 per cent of the business in the first four months. In one of its projects, Digital China will help the northeastern city of Changchun swap out American cloud computing staples IBM, Oracle and EMC with home-grown technology.
Tony Yu, chief executive of Chinese server maker H3C, said that his company was seeing a significant increase in demand for data centre services from some of the country’s top internet companies. “Rapid growth in up-and-coming sectors will bring a new force to China’s economy after the pandemic passes,” he told Bloomberg News.
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There is concern about whether this long-term strategy provides much in the way of stimulus now, and where the money will come from. “It’s impossible to prop up China’s economy with new infrastructure alone,” said Zhu Tian, professor of economics at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. “If you are worried about the government’s added debt levels and their debt servicing abilities right now, of course you wouldn’t do it. But it’s a necessary thing to do at a time of crisis.”
Digital China is confident that follow-up projects from its housing initiative in Guangzhou could generate 30 million yuan in revenue for the company. It is also hoping to replicate those efforts with local governments in the northeastern province of Jilin, where it has 3.3 billion yuan worth of projects approved. These include building a so-called city brain that will for the first time connect databases including traffic, schools and civil matters such as marriage registry. “The concept of smart cities has been touted for years but now we are finally seeing the investment,” said Kwok.