Stories from China Tech that don't get reported: A conversation with Rui Ma of Tech Buzz China

Today we're sitting down with Rui Ma. She is a very old friend of mine who also runs one of the top Chinese tech podcasts. Th ere are so many stories we never get to hear in the West, so I thought it would be fun to talk through a bunch of those narratives. It's a country of 1.4B people. People say China is either the future, or it copies the future. The reality is a little bit of both. 

Transcript below

The best podcast on Chinese technology— Tech Buzz China

00:30 Meet Rui Ma, Co-host of Tech Buzz China 
00:58 Tech in the West doesn't pay enough attention to China 
01:18 Why Rui started Tech Buzz China 
02:13 Luckin Coffee is an example of US tech media getting it wrong 
02:43 Media’s false equivalence: Luckin = Starbucks 

What's it called and how do we find it?

It's called Tech Buzz China, and then you can just go to any platform and we'll be there.

That's awesome, and what kind of stuff do you like to talk about?

Basically I talk about China tech, but it's with a heavy emphasis on internet. So, consumer internet primarily because that's really a lot of the big Chinese internet companies, that's what they're doing.

There's just so much happening in China and it feels like the media environment is completely separate. It doesn't make sense, it's worlds apart in sort of a sheer hardware platform, a sheer, like, software platform, but I don't think people pay attention to what's happening with Chinese companies nearly enough, and I'm glad for what you do. Thanks for doing that!

Oh, thank you.

Why did you start the podcast?

I thought there was an opportunity to more clearly bridge a divide that I saw between English coverage of Chinese tech companies and then what actually was happening on the ground in China. There are certain companies that are really popular in the media, or with the media here in the U.S., and are actually viewed quite skeptically in China, for example. There are other companies that are viewed very strongly in China that might not get a lot of airtime here in the U.S. but that are really interesting. And so, I look primarily at actually Chinese rich coverage, and I lived and worked in China for eight years, so, I tried to use my knowledge and cultural understanding to bring that, yeah.

That's super useful. What's the most extreme example of this?

One of the more extreme examples of recent years is a company called Luckin Coffee, which basically does delivery of their coffee. In China, there's a lot of skepticism about the company, but in the U.S., I think that they have, you know, there's some balanced coverage, but overall, I felt like that they were covered more favorably here.

How do you think that happens, that reporters here can't get access to the right people to sort of vet the story properly?

I think basically the reason why that happens is that there are certain narratives that come more naturally to Western audiences, so it's just more interesting because it's more familiar, whereas there are lots of things that are more unique to China that are just difficult to explain without have to provide a ton of context.

In the case of Luckin, they sort of just used one work to explain their business, and the word was Starbucks, which I think everyone here can understand, but if you take another company in China, like Kuaishou, which is a short-video app that does live-streaming e-commerce, all these other things, it's just much harder to explain 'cause there's no Western analog.

On Chinese mobile penetration

03:39 Smartphone growth drove more greenfield new consumer cos in China than US 
04:20 Mobile drove growth in China— Now that growth is over 

The size of the market seems actually, just in terms of number of consumers, quite a bit bigger than the American internet audience. There's a crazy amount of competition for the eyeballs in the West. There was a much bigger opportunity for sort of the media side than the consumer side in China over the past 10 years than anything in the United States, but on the sort of startup side, like you just saw these really, really fast assents of companies in the new smartphone age on the China side.

Part of that is easy to explain— just that there was far less desktop penetration, all right, so when people got connected to the internet, it was through their mobile device.

Where do you think we are on that spectrum of sort of mobile penetration?

Actually, we just did an episode on that, it's called 2019 Year of Review, but basically that was one of the primary highlights, that mobile penetration has effectively stopped because 1.4 billion people in China, you have about, you know, almost a billion on the Smartphone, so there is just not that much to go.

I think the growth was only, like, low double-digit millions. The growth in 2019 was definitely very low compared to years before, where it was just like tens of millions of people would come online, you wouldn't have to do anything. So, if you are a Smartphone app developer, then, right, like your market size is just organically expanding. So, yeah, you just have to kind of keep up with the market.

The China Narrative: The future? or The clone?

04:55 What do founders in the West need to understand about China tech? 
05:23 2 China Tech narratives - they’re the future or they steal the future 
07:02 US companies can’t walk and chew gum. Chinese tech cos build super apps. 
07:48 Why superapps? WeChat and Meituan are transaction oriented 
08:51 Superapps provide superior UX 

What do you think startup founders in the West—what are some of the things that you find they least understand or that they really need to? Is it the future of consumer behavior or...

Well, I would actually say that that, in itself, is a misconception in many ways, right? So, there are sort of two dominant narratives about China tech, and one is they're the future, and the future has arrived there, and if you want to know what's happening, you go there, and it's like, sort of, you time travel. And then the second narrative is like, they steal everything, and everything there is actually fake or weak, or whatever.

I feel like that was a narrative 10 years ago, or even five years ago, and then, maybe five years ago or three years ago, it flipped over and reversed.

I think there's still a good amount of people who believe the latter, that, you know, Chinese companies are inherently weak, and now they popped up because Western competition has effectively been fenced out of the country, which is not untrue. And I would say, there's a lot of nuance to both perspectives, right? So, for the second, for the second narrative that we just talked about, basically there's a lot of domestic competition.

So, it's not that the companies are weak. The companies are the strongest of the native Chinese ecosystem and that actually makes them quite strong because it's very competitive there. The first narrative about, you know, China being so much farther ahead in terms of consumer internet in particular, I would say I disagree with that, that's not necessarily true. They have very different business models, because there is different consumer behavior because of the greater ecosystem, right, especially when you're talking about consumer internet e-commerce, then you've got to look at what does the rest of the retail landscape look like. You've got to look at it for entertainment, then you've got to look at what does the rest of the traditional, for example, media landscape look like, because that's what will push people into or out of, right, digital consumption formats.

In the West, it seems like startups and services— consumer services, in particular, can really only do one thing. China's super-app is so different— these apps can do everything seemingly, that an app is almost the OS. Maybe it's just a function of that the OS itself is, whether it's Android or iOS, is owned by American companies, and so it's sort of a natural outgrowth of political power. Why is it that there are super-apps in China and they just, don't seem to be the same? Facebook tries but people still just open the news feed.

I assume you're referring to super-apps like WeChat or Meituan apps.

And they're just incredibly deep, right?

They're incredibly deep. Yeah, well, part of it is because they are transaction oriented, right, they're not advertising oriented. So, what they're doing is that their value to you is allowing you to do things, right? Their main utility for you is to do transactions versus spend more time on it, which just, I think, naturally leads to a different way of thinking about what your platform should look like--

They're not trying to eat all of your spare time.

Exactly, and how people should be able to plug in. WeChat, frankly, like very simply, we've done a ton of episodes on WeChat, they're a, you know, quote, unquote, super-app. A lot of other functions are from other applications, right? They just see themselves as a platform. Really, the only thing they, you know, sort of own is sort of the payment, but everything else is pretty much like third-party. And that's something that you can do if your primary goal is to facilitate transactions, but if your primary goal is to, yeah, hog time and hog advertising, then that's probably not an intuitive move for you. On a Smartphone, if you think about it, apps provide the better experience than a non-mobile, optimized webpage, right?


So, and that's what I think WeChat has done really well, so, specifically, their mini programs are effectively, like, you can think of them like rich webpages that are highly attractive, right?

COVID-19 in China

09:12 Obligatory coronavirus discussion 
10:02 Economic output is still only 1/6th of normal levels as China 
10:42 The markets didn't catch up to COVID-19 until the last week of Feb, months later 

Obviously we're in the middle of Coronavirus. With your friends in China, I mean, what's happening, what's it like, and, you know, is that, how much do you look at that and see, well, you know, that might be what we have in store in the West?

A lot of my friends in China got themselves out of the country either before, because it happened to be around Chinese New Year, so a lot of people were actually on vacation. So they just simply didn't return. Those who were in the country, I think, as the quarantine has sort of dragged on, especially those with children because school's not restarting, they actually just decided to leave the country. Those who are still there and working, my understanding is that this week, the week that we're recording, which is like the last week in February, it's already started to ramp up, right? But if you look at just overall across the economy, it's still a fraction of what it was at the same time last year, actually about one-sixth, the traffic. I certainly hope that is not going to be what's in store for California.

Yeah. That's the tricky thing, yeah.

But we'll see.

It's tricky because they're not really testing people here, so we don't actually have accurate numbers, but...

Yeah, we don't have, well, exactly, well, they're not testing. I think that that's what happened in the beginning of the China epidemic as well. There is lack of testing kits, there's lack of, you know, centers that can do it. So, basically, unless you are severely ill, then you are not tested.

It's funny to watch the market sort of react only now when, you know, the information about it was sort of out and about for like more than a month, and I guess there was just sort of this trust that it wasn't going to come over here.

The stock market, right? I actually tweeted about that because I was listening to a podcast about the markets, and then the two co-hosts, this is a very popular podcast, and the two co-hosts were basically saying that the markets are generally right and that people usually freak out more than, or that the media specifically freak out more. But, yeah, as we can see this week, the markets are legit freaking out.

Yeah. Well, let's hope there's a floor. The funny thing is that two or three weeks ago, when I talked to people about the markets when it came to the Coronavirus, they were pretty convinced that, well, the governments are going to print money until it's fixed, and then the difficult thing is that, you know, it really impacts the small to medium-sized businesses the most, but the large businesses have cash hoards and it's fine.


And they can borrow, and that would be sort of my worry. If you're like relaxed in credit, the banks don't really extend that to sort of like the most vulnerable parts of any business economy, not just in China but worldwide.

Yeah, yeah, in China, that's definitely the case.

Digitization, e-signatures and automation on the rise with the pandemic

11:24 Money-printing will help large firms but not SMBs who need it the most 
12:15 Chinese gov't has asked landlords and lenders to forgive payments 
12:31 Chinese cos with software automation were least hit by the COVID-19 lockdown 
13:29 Ant Financial's Supply Chain Blockchain is one of the largest production blockchains in use 

So, I'm worried about the startups, I'm worried about the little guy, because it seems like they're the most vulnerable through a pandemic situation like this.

Well, in China, there, you know, the government has instituted policies that will hopefully help, right? They've asked, you know, landlords and governments to forgive rent, taxes, you know, for a few months, et cetera. And then, one thing maybe that's interesting for your crypto audiences is that, so, I think one of the main themes you saw in this whole, you know, crisis in China is that the businesses who are most digitized and who are most automated are doing the best, are the most resilient, right? So, I mean, digitalization means anything from like very simple, just keeping your documents, like, electronically because, yeah, when you're stuck at home, like, you know, no, you can't go to your office and like do all these things. And then, when you resume work, actually people have to, in China, they have to sign all these agreements saying that they'll keep themselves healthy, they'll check themselves in if they have a temperature, all this stuff, and you need to collect it from all of your employees, for example, before you can start resuming work, and that's led to a spike in e-signature companies, right?

Because previously you'd collect it on paper, but now everyone's like, oh, great, you know, I want contactless.

Right. This should be a mini app.

Yeah, yeah, it is, yeah. You take digitization to the fullest extent, which is if all your transactions are digitized, and specifically, in this case, I'm talking about Ant Financial has a Supply Chain Blockchain. So, what they're doing is, if all your stuff is on their Blockchain, then what they'll do is they'll give you a loan on your accounts receivable.

Oh, interesting.

So that if you are one of those tiny businesses, like just need, you know, a couple of weeks or a couple of months of cash flow, because they, you know, they don't need to check with anyone, they don't need to go to the bank or anything, they're just like, all right, we see it, here's some cash.

I wonder if that's one of the largest current deployments of the use of Blockchain?

I think, again, this product was released just a year ago, last year, and probably people didn't really understand. Specifically during this crisis, it's clear that it's superior to not being on it for the small businesses. And, again, it goes to show that, for China, I think, the epidemic will be really interesting in, you know, for a very long time, enterprise software and just like, you know, efficiency in general is not necessarily like the highest priority in many organizations, but now you have this virus.

Now you have to, yeah.

Yeah, and sort of like, you actually can't function unless things are digitized or contactless in some way.

Remote work in China

14:48 Covid 19’s impact on remote work 
15:31 China's 996 Work Schedule: 9AM to 9PM, 6 Days a Week 

That's right, I mean, remote work in the West has just become almost existential, at least for San Francisco. It's like for tech, for tech startups in San Francisco, everyone I know is either opening offices elsewhere or considering- If you're starting something new, I'm seeing a lot of remote first, it's not like add remote later. It's literally like, we're not going to have an office. And then, I think this is going to accelerate that a bit.

Yeah, this is going to accelerate that, well, a ton now that, you know, it's coming to the West as well, but in China, where it was like culturally, you know, I don't want to say it was culturally unacceptable, but honestly, kind of.

This is the 996 culture?

Yeah, kind of, yeah, exactly 996.

What is 996?

996 is people working 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week, yeah. Very, very common.

That's a lot of work.

Yeah, it's very, very common. And again, like in China, I mean, just to give you an example of like, in general, the management tends to want to keep a very close eye on its employees. So, the sort of slack equivalent in China, right, Dingtalk, WeChat, whatever, they actually have, they'll actually geolocate you because of--

Always, yeah.

Yeah, exactly, because it's very important that the boss can see--

You're in Bali. I mean, why are you in Bali?

So, and they punch in and out, right? So, you know, you would think that, like, oh, I'm a software developer, or whatever, I'm a white-collar worker, but no, like, actually, you know, your boss is very much expecting you to be at your seat in the office about a certain amount of time.

I mean, here there's definitely a sense that there's sort of 10 ex-engineers there are certainly people who can, sit there put a butt in a seat for a long time, but, you know, there are some people who can do the work of 10 engineers with like 40 hours a week.

Yeah, it's basically, like the focus on output, which is more rational, versus, in China, there's still a lot of emphasis on input.

On-demand in China can't keep supply up: The unskilled worker shortage is driving robotic automation

16:45 On-demand is far more viable in densely urban China 
17:10 Surprising: China's on-demand economy can't hire enough blue collar service workers 
17:34 Even China can't hire enough workers, so they are turning to robotic automation 
18:17 Nvidia mobile GPU chips are a key "Why Now?" for robotics 
18:37 Freedom Robotics is building the telematics/analytics platform that lets fleets manage 1000s of robots 
18:52 Robotics is going to see its iPhone moment thanks to realtime computer vision + GPU compute 

If you look at the model of every on-demand business, profitability is almost always predicated on density.


And, in China, you not only have a very different sort of labor cost model, you also have incredible amounts of density.

Yes, yeah.

And so, that was always interesting to see, like these on-demand businesses are just like not great here but incredible in China.

But even then, something that's changing as well is, even with the great density, the service workers required to support these on-demand businesses, like couriers, like, you know, whatever, like these sort of, you know, I wouldn't call them super unskilled, but relatively speaking, you don't need a bachelor's degree, so it's sort of considered blue-collar work in China. They're running out of people wanting to do these jobs.


And so, it's becoming automated, right, like the next big thing is like service robots, yeah.

Autonomous. Service robots, that makes sense.

And the virus is, again, accelerating that because some things, like right now, you literally, like you do want the robots to do it, right, like there are all these people making disinfectant robots. Shining UV lights and just like literally spraying everywhere with bleach, or whatever it is.

Yeah, but the robotic sort of revolution has been a long time coming. It's almost become somewhat of a red herring for people because generations and generations of investors have like sort of lost their shirts on it 'cause it's always sort of around the corner. The weird thing is we do think that Nvidia and AMD GPUs, especially at sort of mobile scale, are finally good enough for real-time, high-definition computer vision, and that's sort of like the beginning part of being able to do practical robotics. So, we're definitely really interested in that space. We funded a company called Freedom Robotics, for instance, that's the infrastructure and analytics for basically any fleet of robots. And so, it does telematics, all of the things you actually need to run a fleet of a thousand or 10 thousand or a hundred thousand robots. Why does the iPhone exist? The iPhone exists because you could finally have a device with that compute and that memory and that display for that cost, for a cost that was low enough that crazy, early adopters were willing to pay for it. That's the story of tech broadly.


It's a toy, it's a toy, it's a toy, it's research, it's research, research. It's like Apple Newton, General Magic, and then finally the iPhone.

Right, yeah. No, I absolutely agree, I think it's starting to become economical, even in countries like China, where the wages are much lower.

On EHang, the autonomous air taxi startup

19:21 On EHang (autonomous air taxi) 

Oh, I have to ask you about EHang. Do you ever follow that company?

The drone company.

I mean, they're, like, public now.

Yeah, they're public. They had a very tiny IPO.

Yeah, it's like 500 mill market cap, or something. So, EHang is a startup that I've been tracking for a number of years just because it's manned drones, single-person and two-person drone flights, so it's like, you know, drones meet air taxis.

Yep, they used to be just purely a drone company. And it was about maybe three or four years ago that they sort of decided, hey, we're going to do these drone taxis, air taxis, I think that's what they're calling them.

I want it now. Hook it up right now.

That is what they went public with in terms of their story, but I remember reading, I think I briefly looked at their prospectus, that they're not like in production or anything. Yeah, they're still in R&D. So, it is a--

It's a safety thing. They've done thousands of flights, but, yeah, there's not commercialization.

How China deals with hard tech sci fi companies: The "PPT" pejorative

20:27 How China deals with hard tech startups "PPT" deals 

Do you think China deals with these sort of science-fiction companies, or these sort of like hard tech companies, in a different way than the West?

In terms of fundraising, if you're talking about from private investors, I think it's very much the same. People are, you know, either they buy your story or they don't.

Correct. I mean, here we have, you know, in the West, we have the Hyperloop, which, you know, hit covers of every magazine, but, no, I don't think we're going to see a Hyperloop anytime soon.

Yeah, in China, they call it raising money by PPT, so, by PowerPoint. They were like, oh, that's a PowerPoint entrepreneur.

That's funny. That's a pejorative then.

Yeah, a lot of people in China call the entire electric vehicle, sector, actually— The sector that raised money by PowerPoint. 

What do they think of Tesla?

I think Chinese people in general really like Tesla.

Beause they're shipping, I guess—that's the difference between PPT.

Yeah, yeah, and to be fair, like, at least two of the, electric vehicle companies are already shipping in China, yeah, and there's a ton of other sort of more traditional EV companies that are, but their cars are kind of ridiculous, they're more like golf carts with batteries.

But like the real sort of competitive automobiles that are electric-powered, I would say, yeah, there's a handful that are already shipping, so it's not like they're completely full of hot air. 

Trends in China are often guided by the government

21:53 In China, the govt will define entire tech waves for investment

Fundraising, however, in China, you can get, look, there are certain sorts of ways, right? So, the government will have, the government will have certain sectors that they're really interested in supporting. The difference in China is that, in the U.S., if you said, oh, the government thinks this is a really important industry, private, you know, investors typically might roll their eyes and be like, you know--

It's like, oh, the government couldn't possibly be doing something smart. It's probably graft, I don't know.

No, but in China, though, if the government's like, hey, we're really focused on this sector, and there'll be a lot of actual private money that will tag along.

That makes sense.

Yeah, so, and it'll be like a much more sort of cohesive thing, in which case, then, it could still fail, like if you look at sort of coworking, I wouldn't necessarily say that was a, massive success here or in China, but in China, for a time period, there was a lot of subsidies into coworking. But now, in China, for example, semiconductors, especially semiconductors for new technologies, like autonomous driving and whatnot, are definitely very much sectors that the government wants to put money in. And then, so you'll see that in fundraising, there'll be sort of like a lot of enthusiasm all at once, and it'll be much more uniform and easy to detect, versus here, you still have to, like, the individual funds thesis matters, whereas there, it's sort of like a macro thesis.

On China Bikesharing in 2020

23:27 How are China's bike share companies doing in 2020? 

What's the current state of bike-sharing? I mean, there are just these ridiculous photos of like giant piles of bikes.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's pretty much that.

Just sort of emblematic of like overgrowth capital and like misallocation of funds. 

Yeah, yeah. I would say that the entire industry has suffered a demise, pretty much.

Yeah. People still use them, though.

Yes, but far less frequently.

So, there was actually sort of the shark fin aspect of, oh, this is a cool thing, and then there's a drop-off. People just revert to walking, or--

Yeah, and a part of it is not necessarily because the idea, like the concept, doesn't work, it's just that the execution was poor, right? So, the two major players basically a had different philosophy. One was, oh, we'll build a sturdier bike, but it's heavy, but it's more, it's going to be better in the long-run, right? It's going to have less repair costs, but it's heavy, so it's not great to ride anyway. And then, the other player, the other major player, yeah, exactly, it was lightweight, we're going to do $30 bikes, and then, by the way, they just like break, they're barely working.

That's a little wasteful.

Yeah, so, there's still one or two players, that you can still see their inventory on the street these days, but they are more like advertising-supported, and they just have like much larger platforms, and they're a lead-generation for other things. The bike-sharing bike itself, as a business model, doesn't work. It has to lead to some other transaction.

How US startups can do business in China

25:02 As a Chinese startup, do you have to be allies with Alibaba or Tencent? 
26:14 A startup's product market fit sometimes becomes just a tech giant's moat 
26:36 How Chinese megatech cos invest in startups 
27:19 How can US startups enter China? 
28:00 How to build a presence in China? Just go. 
28:19 Top tier cities are like Manhattan, and not representative of the whole country 

Okay, so there's a perception in the West that, you know, a startup that comes about in China needs to sort of ally itself with, you know, one of the big sort of mega operators, like one of the big, you know, I mean, here we talk about the Big Five startups. Perhaps a few years ago, we talked about, you know, the BAT. [Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent]

Where are we at today in 2020, like, who are the big players, and as a startup coming up, do you need to, you know, ally yourself with one of them, can you get all of them, or maybe it doesn't matter today?

It's not a super must that you go with one of them. It's not BAT anymore, but it's basically like Alibaba and Tencent, and then, to some extent, maybe by dense it's a little bit more active now. It's very, very rare for you to get both of them. That almost never happens because they hate each other. Yeah, you have Alibaba in e-commerce and Tencent in sort of social networking media. If you're a new startup, I definitely think that you're going to get pressure from one or two, one of the sites to get investment from them if you're successful.

And every new, you know, whether it's a new product or service, if it can get product market fit and grow very quickly, you know, sooner or later, some tech giant, no matter what market you're in, will have some sort of interest in it as basically some sort of technological moat.

Yep, that's exactly what's happening in China. The Chinese companies, they are very strategic, but at the same time, there is still like a good amount of coordination that has to happen between the investment itself and the operations, right? So, it really depends on who is sort of pushing for the investment. It's obviously going to be most strategic and easiest for integration to happen if a business unit itself organically says, hey, I think we should be in this business, and then takes it to an investment team.

Yeah, but that's not, my understanding is that that's not always how it works. So, there are plenty of investments, I think, where, at least in the beginning, it starts off having not necessarily so much strategic significance.

What advice to you have for startups today that, you know, have product market fit in, you know, the Western markets and, you know, want to enter China?

I think you've got to have, yeah, some core technology, technological advantage, or it's like a really good fit for, like we were saying earlier, one of the really large internet companies that you could partner with, because otherwise having--

You need a partner.

You don't necessarily need a joint venture, yeah, you could just open up an office, but you would probably want to have some kind of strategic partner.

You need some friends.

Exactly, you need friends, right, to tell you what's going on, or else, I mean, unless your technology is so defensible. I think what's interesting is that, like, well, what I would say to all the founders who, you know, if they're watching this, would be basically like, just get a Visa and go to China, well, after the virus is over, but just go there and see for yourself because you'll be able to tell, like, what's hype and what's not. Again, when you go there, do know that, I mean, unless someone's taking you into the countryside, you are seeing sort of like the best parts, the most presentable parts of China.

If you're in Shenzhen, or in Shanghai, or--

Yeah, if you're, yeah, Beijing, right, then it's like looking at Manhattan and going like, ah, this is the U.S., right?

The forgotten population that's bigger than the United States: 400M people in rural areas

28:49 Over 300 cities with more than 1M people 
30:09 City dwellers make up over 1B of 1.4B people 
30:24 Rural China is over 400M people 
31:20 Qutoutiao pays rural Chinese users pennies per day to use it for even an hour

Can you walk people through the different tiers of cities? I thought that was always an interesting idea, you know, I mean, the Chinese cities are so vast that, you know, they're like tier four or tier five cities that are larger than Manhattan, easily.

Right, yeah, there are like over 300 cities in China that have over a population of one million. There is like four first-tier cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, and there's about sort of, I think, about 17 what's called second-tier, or new second-tier, cities, and these include like Hangzhou, where Alibaba is, and a bunch of other cities. Wuhan, for example, people would've heard of by now. It's basically organized by GDP, right, so it's how much GDP does this city generate? So, in China, because the population is 1.4 billion, there are still quite a few cities that have millions in population but might be, GDP-wise, not that strong, so they would be considered a third or fourth-tier city.

And yet that city might still be the world's center of manufacturing--

For something, yeah. Buttons or something, yeah, yeah.

I was thinking buttons, yeah.

Yeah, exactly.

That's the funniest example.

Just the first and second-tier cities alone is about  a couple of hundred million, but urban populations usually consider 400 million, and that's usually maps to first and second-tier cities. And then third-tier and fourth-tier cities and below, it goes all the way down to like fifth-tier, and then you're in villages and townships, that's about a billion people. So, it's about like what's 70% of China's population, and that population is considered and called rural, and they have just very different ways of using the internet, and they each have very different consumer habits from urban populations. Like one great example that I always like to tell is for, so, everyone probably knows ByteDance, you know, maker of TikTok, their first product was this AI news app called Toutiao. Tencent actually invested in a company that did Toutiao, but for the rural population specifically, Qutoutiao. They paid people pennies to read the news basically.

So, they cloned it.

Yeah, yeah, I mean, well, whatever, it's not that complicated, right? It's like a platform where people can submit news, and then it pushes you through an algorithm. And what's really interesting is, when we visited this company, they basically said, hey, you know, just so you understand the level of people that we're targeting, because, like, a lot of the investors I was with couldn't understand, like, are you saying people are like using this app for an hour a day for like a payout of pennies? Why would they do this?

That sounds like AllAdvantage, do you remember that? It was this, like, first dot-com scam thing, where it would pay you to look at ads.

To look at ads, okay. That's exactly what this company does, right? But then people were like, why would you do that, and then they were like, guys, it's because they're basically poor, and they have a lot of time, they don't have other entertainment, so what're they going to do, right, like--

Why don't they farm virtual goods in, like, World of Warcraft and things instead? I think they'd pay more than pennies in that.

I don't think it pays that much anymore.

Oh, really?

Well, also, these are like older, these are also older people, right? Like, you know, aunties and uncles, right? But their point was, like just to give you an example, you know, the lifestyles of these people, their most popular article, like in the summer of last year, was how to use a microwave, right, like these were people who were like getting the installation of their first microwave, or whatever, right? So, of course, for them, maybe like getting paid a few pennies when they're doing something they otherwise wouldn't be doing, it actually makes sense.

So, and I think that's what I would say, if you are, if you are a founder, right, like when you do look at headlines from China, make sure you understand what kind of customer they're trying to service because there's just like a large spectrum of user behaviors.

I think that that's emblematic of like the Chinese miracle overall over the past, you know, 15, 20 years, just literally, just this unbelievable rise of the middle-class within that country, so. Plus the Smartphone, I mean, it's just unbelievable.

Like the two of those things combined make China like the craziest economic miracle. 

Thank you for hanging out.

Yeah, thank you for having me.

Go right now and subscribe to Tech Buzz China at and go find them on where you get your podcasts. Get up to date on what's actually happening in China. 

You can also follow Rui Ma on Twitter here @ruima

If you liked this, please be sure to like and subscribe to my channel on YouTube—