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Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, a lawsuit sparked a debate over the deployment of China’s pervasive facial recognition; meanwhile, in some good news, foreigners in China can finally experience cashless payment just like locals.

China’s first lawsuit against face scans

Many argue that China holds an unfair advantage in artificial intelligence because of its citizens’ willingness to easily give up personal data desired by tech companies. But a handful of people are surely getting more privacy-conscious.

This week, a Chinese law professor filed what looks like the country’s first lawsuit against the use of AI-powered face scans, according to Qianjiang Evening News, a local newspaper in the eastern province of Zhejiang. In dispute is the decision by a privately-owned zoo to impose mandatory facial recognition on admission control for all annual pass holders.

“I’ve always been conservative about gathering facial biometrics data. The collection and use of facial biometrics involve very uncertain security risks,” the professor told the paper, adding that he nonetheless would accept such requirement from the government for the purpose of “public interest.”

Both the government and businesses in China have aggressively embraced facial recognition in wide-ranging scenarios, be it to aid public security checks or speed up payments at supermarket checkouts. The technology will certainly draw more scrutiny from the public as it continues to spread. Already, the zoo case is garnering considerable attention. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, posts about the suit have generated some 100 million views and 10,000 comments in less than a week. Many share the professors’ concerns over potential leaks and data abuse.

Scan and pay like a local

The other technology that has become ubiquitous in China is cashless payments. For many years, foreign visitors without a Chinese bank account have not been able to participate in the scan-and-pay craze that’s received extensive coverage in the west. But the fences are now down.

This week, two of the country’s largest payment systems announced almost at the same time that they are making it easier for foreigners to pay through their smartphones. Visitors can now pay at a selection of Chinese merchants after linking their overseas credit cards backed by Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Global Network or JCB to Tencent’s WeChat Pay.

“This is to provide travelers, holding 2.6 billion Mastercard cards around the world, with the ability to make simple and smart payments anytime, anywhere in China,” Mastercard said in a company statement.

Alipay, Alibaba’s affiliate, now also allows foreign visitors to top up RMB onto a prepaid virtual card issued by Bank of Shanghai with their international credit or debit cards. The move is a boon to the large swathes of foreign tourists in China, which numbered 141 million in 2018.

Also worth your attention

Didi’s controversial carpooling service is finally back this week, more than a year after the feature was suspended following two murders of female passengers. But the company, which has become synonymous with ride-hailing, was immediately put in the hot seat again. The relaunched feature noticeably included a curfew on women, who are only able to carpool between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. The public lambasted the decision as humiliating and discriminating against women, and Didi responded swiftly to extend the limit to both women and men. The murders were a huge backlash for the company, and it’s since tried to allay the concerns. At this point, the ride-hailing giant simply can’t afford another publicity debacle.

The government moves to stamp out monopolistic practices of some of China’s largest e-commerce platforms ahead of Single’s Day, the country’s busiest shopping festival. Merchants have traditionally been forced to be an exclusive supplier for one of these giants, but Beijing wants to put a stop to it and summoned Alibaba, JD.com, Pinduoduo (in Chinese) and other major retail players for talks on anti-competition this week.

Iqiyi, often hailed as the “Netflix of China,” reports widening net loss at $ 516.0 million in the third quarter ending September 30. The good news is it has added 25 million new subscribers to its video streaming platform. 99.2% of its 105.8 million user base are now paying members.

36Kr, one of China’s most prominent tech news sites, saw its shares tumble 10% in its Nasdaq debut on Friday. The company generates revenue from subscriptions, advertisements and enterprise “value-added” services. The last segment, according to its prospectus, is designed to “help established companies increase media exposure and brand awareness.”


TechCrunch

Welcome to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of events that happened at major Chinese tech companies and what they mean to tech founders and executives around the world.

The talk about U.S.-China relationships over the past two weeks has centered heavily on the NBA controversy, which has put the interest of some of China’s largest tech firms at stake. Last week, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong protests in his since-deleted tweet, angering China’s NBA fans and prompting a raft of local tech companies to sever ties with the league. But some businesses seem to be back on track.

Tencent, which is famous for a slew of internet products, including WeChat and its Netflix-like video service, has been NBA’s exclusive streaming partner since 2009 and recently renewed the deal through the 2024-25 season. As many as 490 million fans in China watched NBA programming through Tencent in just one season this year, the pair claims.

The basketball games are clearly a driver of ad revenue and subscribers for Tencent amid fierce competition in China’s video streaming market, but following Morey’s statement, the company swiftly announced (in Chinese) it would suspend portions of its broadcast arrangements with the NBA. Popular smartphone brand Vivo and Starbucks’s local challenger Luckin also promised to pause collaboration with the NBA.

It was a tough call for businesses having to choose between economic interest and patriotism, and Tencent was tactful in its response, pledging only to “temporarily” halt the streaming of NBA “preseason games (China).” As public anger subsided over the week, Tencent resumed airing NBA preseason games on Monday. After all, the content partnership reportedly cost Tencent a heavy sum of $ 1.5 billion.

Entertainment giant turns to education

tiktok edutok

TikTok is probably the Chinese Internet service being most closely watched by the world at the moment. Its parent firm ByteDance, last reportedly valued at $ 75 billion, has ambitions beyond short videos.

This week, more details emerged on the upstart’s education endeavors through a WeChat post by Musical.ly founder Lulu Yang, whose short-video startup was acquired by ByteDance and subsequently merged with TikTok. Yang confirmed he was helping ByteDance to develop an education device in collaboration with phone maker Smartisan’s former hardware team, which ByteDance has absorbed. The product, which leverages ByteDance’s artificial intelligence capabilities, will be a “robotic learning companion” for K-12 students to use at home.

The news arrived in the same week that ByteDance’s flagship video app TikTok announced producing educational content for India, where it’s used by 200 million people every month. The move is designed to assuage local officials who have vehemently slammed TikTok for hosting illicit content, as my colleague Manish Singh pointed out.

Diving into education appears to be a sensible move for ByteDance to build relationships with local authorities, which can at times find its entertainment-focused content problematic. The multi-billion-dollar online education industry is also highly lucrative. ByteDance, with 1.5 billion daily users across TikTok, Douyin (TikTok for China), Toutiao news aggregator and other new media apps, is in a good position to monetize the enormous base by touting new services, whether they are educational content or mobile games.

Also worth your time

  • A total of 53 major video streaming services in China have introduced a “safe mode” for teenagers as of this week, state media reported (in Chinese). During the controls mode, underage users won’t be able to search for content, send real-time comments or private messages, upload or share videos, or reward live streaming hosts with virtual gifts. It’s part of China’s national effort to protect young people from consuming harmful digital content and internet addiction, which has also spawned age checks processes in Tencent games. 
  • Xiaohongshu, a fast-growing social commerce app in China, is back in Android app stores nearly three months after it was banned by the government for undisclosed reasons. Rumors had it that the service, which was reportedly valued at more than $ 2.5 billion last year, was used to spread pornography and fake reviews. It’s hardly the first tech company hit by media regulation, and it can probably learn a thing or two from ByteDance, which has aggressively ramped up its content moderation force following a sequence of crackdowns by the government.
  • Meituan will partner with 1,000 vocational schools in the country to train as many as 100 million workers from the service industry over the next ten years, the Hong Kong-listed company announced (in Chinese) this week. Food delivery makes up the bulk of the on-demand services giant’s business but its footprint spans a wide range. The classes it provides to prepare workers for a digital era will also touch upon skincare, hair styling, manicure, plastic surgery, hospitality and parenting, a program highlighting the extensive reach of technology into Chinese people’s every life.
  • Chinese workers turn out to be big advocates for the application of AI. According to a survey by Oracle and research firm Future Workplace, workers in India (60 percent) and China (56 percent) are the most excited about AI. Japan, where the labor force is shrinking, ranks surprisingly low (25 percent), and the U.S. has an equally mild reaction (22 percent) toward the technology.


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