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The message from the business elite at China's largest tech fair

At the Beyond Expo, the founder of CATL, a global leader in batteries, an investor in Alibaba, and the chairman of the investment giant Fosun spoke about bridging the gap with the West amid the thin ice of geopolitics

Opening of the Beyond Expo: 30,000 people will pass through the corridors of the luxurious Venetian casino hotel (Lucas Amorim)
Opening of the Beyond Expo: 30,000 people will pass through the corridors of the luxurious Venetian casino hotel (Lucas Amorim)
Lucas Amorim

Lucas Amorim

22 de maio de 2024 às 09:39

(To read this article in Portuguese, click here.)

MACAU, China* – Beyond Expo, Asia's largest technology fair, kicked off this Wednesday (22) in Macau with a forward-looking perspective in a delicate context.

The theme of the opening panel couldn't have been more straightforward: "Embracing the uncertainties." Jason Ho, co-founder of Beyond, acknowledged the significant volume of uncertainties worldwide, starting with geopolitics, and urged entrepreneurs to look beyond these challenges. "Should businesses be affected by where they are located or where their founders are from?" he questioned.

Beyond is being held at the lavish Venetian casino hotel, adorned with Venice-inspired decor and boasting over 3,000 rooms. Just steps away from the event are the gaming tables that have made Macau a regional tourism hub with enough financial turnover to surpass Las Vegas.

Macau features a replica of the Eiffel Tower, another of Big Ben, Venice-like canals, and Harry Potter performances—and also retains old Portuguese signage, a legacy of its colonial past. The connection with the West is evident at every turn. For the Beyond organizers, it's the kind of integration that needs to happen more and more in the technology market.

The first entrepreneur to speak was Robin Zeng, founder of CATL, which holds about a third of the global electric car battery market, with clients such as Tesla and BMW. He founded the company in 2011 and today has an estimated fortune of $29 billion.

In Davos earlier this year, Zeng delivered a stern speech urging the audience not to let geopolitics stand in the way of progress. At Beyond, Zeng stated that the world is in an era of transition from traditional to technology-driven economy.

"Innovation is the key word to meet consumer needs. Last year, we invested $2.5 billion in innovation, focusing on new materials and chemistry," he said. CATL's goal, and the world's, according to him, is to have a carbon-neutral society. For example, last year his company recycled one million batteries, and by 2027, they plan to introduce solutions for 14-seat electric planes to the market. "The world needs to move faster," he said.

According to Zeng, China's role in this process is to forge new connections between countries. "I say we can be inspired by the 4-3-3 tactic in football. China has the technology and could have 40% of the outcome; countries with raw materials could have 30%; those with consumer markets, another 30%. It's a distribution that could benefit everyone," he said. According to Zeng, the greatest inspiration for this global redesign lies in the study of Chinese philosophy: "It is possible to compete in peace."

A new business culture

Guo Guangchang, chairman of investment company Fosun, spoke about the necessary business strategy to compete globally. He is a pioneer in Chinese investment in consumer goods worldwide, with bold acquisitions of businesses such as Club Med, Cirque Du Soleil, and English football team Wolverhampton.

"It took me a while to learn what we were good at," he said. "Now we are more focused." At the Beyond Expo, he talked about Fosun's recent investments in healthcare, focusing on cancer treatment. "Our vision is that everyone can live up to 121 years, the biological limit according to the latest research," he said.

For the most global of Chinese investors, China needs to globalize further to have a greater capacity to withstand crises.

"We have to take the best from each region, according to their competitive advantages. Some regions are strong in consumption, others in low production costs, others in raw materials," he said. "American companies historically are the best at this. We need to learn from them."

Neil Shen, one of the pioneers of the venture capital market in China, also spoke at the Beyond Expo opening. Shen heads the HongShan fund, formerly a branch of the acclaimed Sequoia fund in China. He was among the initial investors in giants like Alibaba, ByteDance, Meituan, and JD.com.

For him, successful entrepreneurs in China share commonalities with major entrepreneurs worldwide. "No matter the type of business, the founders we invest in always have a long-term perspective and make decisions focused on the long term. They also have very short learning curves," he said.

According to Shen, the biggest challenge for more Chinese companies to gain ground globally is to create local ecosystems. "It's not just about building a factory, but creating a local culture, attracting the best local talent," he said.

Additionally, in a veiled message to the Chinese business culture, he stated that the era of "operating under the radar" is over. Public relations, he made clear, matter and need to be a priority for businesspeople.

The geopolitics thin ice

In addition to the three titans, the Beyond opening featured a panel with three Chinese leaders in innovation and artificial intelligence: Liu Qingfeng, founder of iFLYTEK, Xu Bing, from SenseTime, and Wen Zhang, from Biren Technology.

"China's gap in AI is not significant," said Bing. According to him, China has a competitive advantage in data and needs to continue advancing in attracting talent. "The path is being paved, in his view, for new trillion-dollar companies with models alternative to those of ChatGPT to emerge in Asia."

Challenges abound. As is known, China faces a series of obstacles to expand its influence in technology worldwide at a time of Beijing's showdown with the United States and Europe.

It's a context that will always be present in China's quest for greater influence (and more business) in the global technology market. As made clear by the Beyond Expo opening, business leaders recognize the thin ice they walk on but have a unified discourse that they need to invest even more in what is under their control.

"We need to learn faster than others," summarized Guangchang, of Fosun. "Learn fast and have fighting spirit."

*The journalist traveled at the invitation of Beyond Expo

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Lucas Amorim

Lucas Amorim

Diretor de redação da Exame

Jornalista formado pela Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, começou a carreira no Diário Catarinense. Está na Exame desde 2008, onde começou como repórter de negócios. Já foi editor de negócios e coordenador do aplicativo da Exame.

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