MWC Shanghai: A world away from Barcelona?

I joined Babel at the end of 2016, meaning February marked my first experience of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. With the APAC event taking place last week, I couldn’t help but ponder the differences between MWC Barcelona and its Shanghai equivalent. Which region is ahead in the tech stakes? And would the vastly different internet culture in China place MWC Shanghai a world away from its Spanish counterpart?

Asia is predicted to overtake Europe when it comes to mobile connectivity, with 1.3 billion LTE mobile subscriptions expected in China by the end of 2022, and 5G accounting for around 10% of subscriptions in Asia in 2022.

Unsurprisingly, China’s prowess in this area shone through at MWC Shanghai. In his keynote address, China Mobile CEO Shang Hing divulged the telco’s plans for a 5G future. The company will partner with five cities in China this year in order to roll out trials of the technology in 2019, before commercial launch the following year. A report by the GSMA, also announced at MWC Shanghai, claimed that 5G connections in China will account for 39% of the global total, hitting 428 million by 2025.

Consolidation in China’s technology industry is no doubt helping to drive these developments. The country has announced more than $110 billion worth of tech M&A deals, positioning the nation as a rapidly emerging Goliath.

Yet perhaps this Goliath is proving particularly heavy-handed.

News from MWC Shanghai showed an homage to China’s thriving tech industry, but beneath the veneer of shiny new smart screens lies a more regressive China, whose recent censorship moves are a reminder of the government’s might. MWC is an open door to international showcasing, cooperation and knowledge, yet the country’s virtual environment is anything but.

A number of foreign news and social media sites cannot be accessed in China, as well as platforms containing political views and content deemed inappropriate or subversive. Even celebrity news blogs were reported to have mysteriously dropped off the internet last month. This is a country with no Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter; a world which instead exists  within its own internet macrocosm.

Despite this, China has a voracious appetite for the internet. One of the lasting memories I have of visiting the country several years ago was the huge, subterranean gaming and internet centres which seemed to be a staple of every town and city. Last year, the number of internet users in the country grew by the size of the entire population of Ukraine; adding 43 million users to reach a total of 731 million.

China’s restrictive strategy has paid off for the country’s homegrown dotcom dominators: the combined annual revenues of e-commerce site Alibaba, social platform Tencent and search engine Baidu exceed $45 billion.

However, the cost of the government’s tight controls is being felt elsewhere. Last month brought reports of jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo seeking permission to leave China in order to receive treatment abroad for liver cancer. Liu was jailed 11 years ago for ‘inciting subversion of the state’, which included his role in the online publication of a manifesto which called for greater human rights, constitutional democracy and rule of law.

MWC Shanghai was no doubt a chance for the region to demonstrate its plan for a digital-first future. However, the region’s closed virtual environment, tightly policed content and seemingly impenetrable borders to many foreign sites seem at odds with this. I’m no expert on the subject, and hold only a lay knowledge of the situation. Yet from my experience of the technology industry – and the sentiment at MWC Barcelona – success is grounded in shared knowledge, resources and open innovation.

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