(Corrects to indicate Tencent is distributor and not manufacturer of Candy Crush Saga in sixth paragraph.)
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s coming initial public offering is being heralded as a victory for Wall Street, which appears to have lured the Chinese e-commerce giant away from a Hong Kong listing. In fact, the real winner may be Silicon Valley.
If you buy the conventional wisdom, this is China's big Internet moment. What's likely to be the second-biggest IPO ever, after Facebook Inc.'s, supposedly signals the beginning of the end for America's technological dominance. Soon the millions of young and eager mathematicians, engineers and scientists China churns out each year will have the world asking "Mark Zuckerberg, who?" It's hard to quibble with the numbers: By 2020, China's pool of college-educated workers could top 195 million -- more than the 2013 U.S. labor force. There you have it: the unstoppable China Inc.
Of course, things could also turn out quite differently. As long as the Communist Party prevents the free exchange of ideas in China, we're not likely to witness the innovative spirit that China bulls claim lies dormant on the mainland. Technology isn't a particularly nationalistic pursuit. Why -- except for the difficulty of getting a visa -- wouldn't China's best, brightest and most entrepreneurial instead flock to the world's hotbeds of debate and inspiration, like artists moving to Paris in the 1920s and Berlin today? All Silicon Valley has to do is cherry-pick China's best people and pay them well to exercise their imaginations. The sales pitch is almost too easy: Live among tall trees and air that won't shorten your lifespan, and work under intellectual-property laws that allow inventors to profit from their ideas.
For all the excitement over Alibaba's IPO, this is no game changer. The company is often described as an amalgam of Amazon, Ebay and PayPal, and that's all great. But mashing three borrowed business models together and packaging them as something new and seminal doesn't make you a trailblazer -- just an ambitious copycat. It's hardly obvious that Alibaba founder Jack Ma's bundling of existing ideas is really worth as much $170 billion, as some are predicting.
What makes Alibaba matter, of course, is its 500 million-plus subscribers. But if Alibaba didn't exist, both the tech world and China would not be much different than they are today. This IPO is a step in the direction of China becoming an e-commerce power, not a turning point in the history of technology.
The frenzy of enthusiasm for Chinese Internet companies in general seems a bit overdone to me, especially when the Communist Party still thinks it can encourage innovation while stifling Google. Take Alibaba's white-hot rival Tencent Holdings Ltd., distributor in China of the ubiquitous "Candy Crush Saga" game and the WeChat instant messaging service. On April 16, Wen Yunchao, a Chinese rights activist living in New York, got a notice that was anything but sweet: His WeChat account had been banned for serious violations of company policies. The crime in question was setting up a chat group called “Shorting China” to share information on protecting human rights in the country.
Sure, that's a no-no in China. But shouldn't it worry investors that they're betting on a company whose technology is proving to be a great way for the Communist Party to locate subversives? Of course, one could make a similar argument about the Googles and Yahoos of our post-Edward Snowden world. But China unapologetically uses its publicly traded companies as wards of the state. Investors can get as excited as they want over Weibo Corp.'s recent IPO -- just so long as they don't communicate their true feelings over the Chinese microblogging service.
China's obsessive censorship is an intensifying headwind on the country's services sector, which the government desperately needs to grow if gas masks aren't soon to become standard accessories. No one doubts Chinese technology companies have the scale to make them dangerous to rivals. But just because China has a generation of youngsters able to compete in a dynamic world and ready to surprise us doesn't mean a paranoid government will ever let them. In the meantime, there's always Silicon Valley.
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