Monday 19 March 2018

Stephen Rae: My trip to see first-hand the tech revolution transforming China

From left, INM editor-in-chief Stephen Rae, Zhang Gaoli, Chinese vice premier for the economy, and Yang Zhenwu, president, People’s Daily, in the Great Hall of the People.
From left, INM editor-in-chief Stephen Rae, Zhang Gaoli, Chinese vice premier for the economy, and Yang Zhenwu, president, People’s Daily, in the Great Hall of the People.

Stephen Rae

Autumn, all the experts say, is the best time to visit China. The sweltering heat is gone and the cold and pollution of winter are still a bit away. So September finds me in Beijing to catch a three-hour flight to Gansu to speak about developments in online media and also to see first-hand the tech revolution transforming this enormous country of 1.2 billion people.


As Beijing reaches for the sky in terms of high rise, the continuing economic boom has the effect of making the traffic worse. Patience is a commodity sorely needed when negotiating the choked-up six-lane roads in the capital. High-end luxury cars like Mercedes-Maybach, Rolls-Royce and Porsche are commonplace, jostling for space with little scooter vans and bikes. But if China is setting trends that quickly move to the West then expect even more motorcycle food deliveries. Day and night at the front of every stop light you see dozens of the delivery bikes. McDonald's now delivers along with a host of local companies, catering mainly for office and shop workers.


The People's Daily is the big media player here and an invite to visit the newsroom finds its way to me. It has a circulation of more than five million newspapers a day and has an online reach of up to 600 million - half the Chinese population. Its headquarters in downtown Beijing is one of the most impressive in the city's new skyline. It's 15 storeys high and has all the latest cutting-edge tech. The People's Daily President, Yang Zhenwu, is the equivalent of a minister in the government. There is no shortage of money going into the paper as it is the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.


Robin Li from search and payments giant Baidu was one of the keynote speakers at the Belt & Road conference held in the north-western city of Dunhuang.

Li is one of China's richest men, worth many billions. Of course, the difficulty in accessing Google, Twitter and other US-based sites has been a huge benefit for his business. He does bring a Silicon Valley dress mode which stands out among the dark suits of most businessmen here. Li is predicting the end of television.

He says it's only got a few years left, because the young are not watching TV. "Young people at Baidu will not eat their lunch until they find a video to watch first," he says. The digital revolution is only beginning and legacy companies must upgrade and evolve their content to meet the needs of the young.

He also spoke of how increasingly the company was using robots to do the work of humans. Journalists would be needed however, predicted Li. "High-quality journalists and editors will still be necessary" in the new tech world.

For Baidu, however, the news can only get better - there is only an internet penetration of 75pc. Lots more business to soak up then.


My turn comes immediately after Li. No pressure then.

You can tell there is a keen interest about Ireland. Everyone wants to know what we think of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which has already led to 5,000 cargo train journeys to Europe. There is no doubt they see Ireland participating in BRI.

Later in the day there are a number of breakout sessions. An enthusiastic Australian professor predicts "the United States is in retreat" and this is the Age of China. There is no doubt he is a fan.

Less so is the Financial Times' China editor Thomas Mitchell, who is not happy the online version of the paper is blocked. However, the moderator insists the FT is not blocked, it's simply legal issues.


David Chen, vice-president of Microsoft, says we are now in age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He draws a laugh with the quip that "the opposite of AI is natural stupidity".

Microsoft has worked on a robot called XiaoIce, which converses with people online. The intelligent chatbot engages users on an emotional and entertainment level and has an average of 22 conversations per session. It has the ability to compose poems and is a host on TV in Asia. I wonder what they'll make of that in RTE.

Chen winds up his talk with a presentation of a toddler daughter being teleported into a room to chat with her dad thousands of miles away. It's effectively a hologram Microsoft is working on which will be the next level of chat.


Dunhuang in Gansu Province, with a population of 200,000, is a small city compared to Shanghai, Hong Kong or Beijing. It lies on the edge of the Gobi Desert and is surrounded by mountains. It was a military centre to protect trade in the days of the Silk Road. It's also an example of the huge money being pumped into infrastructure under BRI. Vast new motorways have very little traffic, a brand new airport for a handful of flights a day has been built, along with a vast hotel and enormous conference centres that would dwarf Dublin's Convention Centre.

One thing has been overlooked though. The cavernous new hotel has no bar. One English colleague also mentions that he thinks the city is the only one he has ever visited with no Irish pub. An opportunity for someone.


The city is most famous for the Mogao Caves. They are elaborate Buddhist temples carved in the mountain rock and date back to 336AD. The caves - which were only rediscovered in 1900 after being buried beneath sand - are a Unesco World Heritage Site. There are also 45,000 square metres of magnificent murals. The infrastructure has been put in place for the millions of tourists expected over the next five years.


Brian O'Driscoll famously said the difference between knowledge and wisdom was knowing a tomato was a fruit but not putting it in a fruit salad. In Gansu he would be faced with a conundrum. All the fruit bowls contain tomato. Then again, the breakfast buffet comes with French fries.


I am surprised by the warmth of the Chinese and awed by the scale of technical change. So I take seriously the words of Dai Wei, co-founder and ceo at Ofo. Still a very young man, he has 200 million customers across the world using his bike-sharing scheme. He says they are using the new tech revolution ecosystem to connect people with 10 million bicycles. He aims to have bikes on "every corner of the world connected".

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