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).
In the master plan backed by President Xi Jinping himself, China will invest an estimated 10 trillion yuan (US$1.4 trillion) over six years to 2025, calling on urban governments and private hi-tech giants like Huawei Technologies to help lay 5G wireless networks, install cameras and sensors, and develop AI software that will underpin autonomous driving to automated factories and mass surveillance.
The new infrastructure initiative is expected to drive mainly local giants, from Alibaba Group Holding and Huawei to SenseTime Group at the expense of US companies.
As tech nationalism mounts, the investment drive will reduce China’s dependence on foreign technology, echoing objectives set forth previously in the “Made in China 2025” programme. Such initiatives have already drawn fierce criticism from the Trump administration, resulting in moves to block the rise of Chinese tech companies such as Huawei.
“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.”
The tech investment push is part of a fiscal package waiting to be signed off by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, which convenes this week. The government is expected to announce infrastructure funding of as much as US$563 billion this year, against the backdrop of the country’s worst economic performance since the Mao era.
The nation’s biggest purveyors of cloud computing and data analysis Alibaba, the parent company of the South China Morning Post, and Tencent Holdings will be linchpins of the upcoming endeavour. China has already entrusted Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment supplier, to help galvanise 5G. Tech leaders including Pony Ma Huateng and Jack Ma are espousing the programme.
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.
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’s new stimulus plan will likely lead to a consolidation of industrial internet providers, and could lead to the emergence of some larger companies able to compete with global leaders, such as GE and Siemens,” said Nannan Kou, head of research at BloombergNEF, in a report. “One bet is on industrial internet-of-things (IoT) platforms, as China aims to cultivate three world leading companies in this area by 2025.”
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.
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.
It is in data centres that a considerable chunk of the new infrastructure development will take place. Over 20 provinces have launched policies to support enterprises using cloud computing services, according to a March research note from UBS Group.
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.
From there, more investment should flow. Bain Capital-backed data centre operator ChinData Group estimated that for every one dollar spent on data centres another US$5 to US$10 in investment in related sectors would take place, including in networking, power grid and advanced equipment manufacturing. “A whole host of supply chain companies will benefit,” the company said in a statement.
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.