Imagining 2030: Social Media In China

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Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.

Martina Fuchs is CCTV NEWS Senior Business Reporter based in Beijing and a Global Fellow at the PS21 Project for the Study of the 21st Century.

    “Red alert: Hazardous smogpocalypse engulfs Beijing”. Angel investor Peng Bo reads the latest Alibaba News Inc. headlines on his Chinese smartphone Gionee in New York City. Just like Huawei and Xiaomi, the Shenzhenbased mobile phone maker has outpaced Apple and Samsung and is rapidly conquering the wireless world well beyond Asia. 

It’s anno 2030. The world’s biggest economy China has overtaken the United States a few years ago. The dominance of Western media organizations, such as Reuters, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Agence France-Press, and the likes, has been broken by the country’s first private global news agency: Alibaba News Inc.

While Xinhua News remains the official press agency of the People’s Republic, subordinate to the central government, the Alibaba empire is now unstoppably gaining market share.

Chinese English media outlets, such as China Central Television (CCTV NEWS), the People’s Daily, China Radio International (CRI), have set up satellite bureaus around the world diffusing news in dozens of foreign languages.

But behind the scenes, China’s three Internet kingdoms – search engine Baidu, e-commerce giant Alibaba and social media powerhouse Tencent – are now running the media show.

Peng Bo remembers “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” he had read at high school, one of the most famous and important novels in classic Chinese literature, which describes wars among three power blocs to replace the dwindling Han Dynasty some 1,800 years ago. “Maybe it is rewriting history?” he asks himself.

Peng Bo rubs his eyes. He still vividly recalls the acquisition of the 112-year-old English language newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP) by Alibaba Group in 2015, back then when he was an intern at the Beijing headquarters of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), still today in 2030 the world’s biggest bank by assets, Alibaba has since stepped up its global shopping spree, investing heavily in a diversified portfolio of media and content companies. After launching DisneyLife in 2015, a service connecting customers, physical products and digital entertainment, it acquired majority stakes in Warner Bros., Walt Disney, and Universal Pictures. It also bought Facebook.

Facebook? Yes. There are no longer Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to jump the “Great Firewall of China”. Access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites has been unblocked and users can freely surf the web. Peng Bo can still hardly believe his eyes. He already counts 4,839 friends. Most of his family members and schoolmates back in China are now on Facebook.

At the same time, thousands and thousands of micro blogging platforms are mushrooming, on the brink of getting out of control.

Censorship has ballooned.

An army of hundreds of thousands of censors, employed by both the Communist Party of China and private companies, is monitoring the media and Internet space around the clock to censor blog posts and other content. Peng Bo is staying away from making political comments to avoid unnecessary trouble.

Euromonitor estimates that China counts a total population of 1.4 billion in 2030, an increase of 4.7% from 2012, mainly due to the end of the one-child policy 15 years ago. Falling birth rates and increasing life expectancy mean that the population continues to age rapidly.

The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) reports that the country now counts more than 800 million Internet users – more than twice the population of the entire United States. Most of them use handsets to go online as the world’s biggest smartphone market continues its shift towards mobile.

With the rise of new Chinese e-commerce platforms, social networks, search engines, and app stores, new players are carrying Chinese names, causing uncountable tongue-twisters among Americans and Europeans, but also motivating the young generation to follow in Mark Zuckerberg’s footsteps to learn Mandarin.

As the Internet has slowly killed off traditional TV, online advertising surpassed TV ad-spend a short time ago. Advertisement revenues are almost exclusively coming from e-commerce.

Big data is growing from big to bigger. Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are leading the way, launching more high-tech innovations in cloud computing and artificial intelligence than ever before, changing our lives more irreversibly.

For example, Baidu is using big data to track and project patterns in disease outbreaks, which help medical laboratories make vaccines and hospitals schedule staff. Tencent meanwhile looks at social data to identify trendsetters among groups of friends, and sharply target marketing and spending strategies.

Peng Bo spots the opportunity. He sources capital from the U.S. to invest in media start-ups in Beijing’s Zhongguancun technology hub in Haidian District, which has become China’s version of the Silicon Valley. Across the area, incubator cells are grooming a growing class of tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, catapulting the media sector into a new era.

Instead of Google, Chinese as well as non-Chinese people around the world today rely on Baidu, and a growing number of Mandarin learners and speakers perform searches in Chinese characters and Pinyin.

News products and services will also be connected through open source business models and the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT, pushed massively by China’s central government, has boosted China’s economic growth by US $1.8 trillion by 2030, research from Accenture finds.

To raise further the global competitiveness of the domestic market, the superpower has prolonged its initiative “Made in China 2025” in its 15th Five-Year Plan, focusing on promoting key sectors such as railways, nuclear power, and most recently also the media industry.

Tencent’s app WeChat (called “Weixin” in Chinese) dominates mobile messaging around the world and boasts over 600 million active users, offering visual and audio tools in different local languages. Peng Bo’s American friends have all jumped on the bandwagon.

News is shared on China’s most popular social platforms, including WeChat, Weibo, Qzone, QQ and RenRen. But it’s not a free lunch anymore. You are now charged for buying articles and news content via e-commerce, using the Chinese yuan as the new global currency. Tencent’s WeChat, Alibaba’s Alipay, and Baidu are at the forefront with digital wallets that let consumers buy the news via Chinese mobile phones and tablets.

Users can nowadays even buy homes, get married, and book their holiday trip to the moon via WeChat transfers.

Peng Bo checks the Air Quality Index (AQI) app on his Aliwatch as he prepares for his upcoming business trip to Beijing. The ancient “bicycle capital”, has long vanished, but the smog is hanging around for longer. The sales of 3M N95 face masks have doubled in China since 2016.

He ponders whether he should also start crowdsourcing for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop high-speed transportation system, the passenger-filled capsules which may soon be riding along Beijing’s skyline.

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