Young people from different countries experience China’s digital economy

BEIJING, July 8, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — During a friendly competition called “A Digital Day Tour of Beijing” on June 17, young participants from several countries vied to unlock their missions in Beijing via some of China’s most popular mobile apps, including hailing rides, learning about the ancient sage Confucius (551-479 B.C.), hopping on a shared bike, and posting pictures of their accomplished tasks on Weixin, China’s domestic version of the WeChat super app. Those most adroit at using the apps won the “race.”

They immersed themselves in China-style digital life and successfully completed the tasks on their checklists. But three days earlier, when they had just arrived in Shenzhen, a major tech hub in south China’s Guangdong Province, most of them had never heard of, let alone used, these Chinese apps.

“They” refer to 16 young people from 14 countries, including China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, South Africa and Pakistan, who joined in the 2023 Future Close-Up Program for a six-day journey, from June 15 to 20, taking them around Shenzhen and Beijing to gain an in-depth understanding of China’s achievements in developing its digital economy.

Participants, comprised of entrepreneurs, scholars and reporters, first spent two days in Shenzhen and then four days in Beijing, including a one-day closing forum. The program was hosted by China International Communications Group (CICG) and Chinese Internet tech giant Tencent, and coordinated by the CICG Center for Americas.

App life

“Chinese applications and economies are always evolving to offer residents a better, more convenient life,” said Jose Carlos Feliciano Nishikawa, a Peruvian participant and Deputy Director of the Center for China and Asia-Pacific Studies at his home country’s Pacific University.

In 2009, when he first came to China, he created a QQ account, an instant messaging software service and web portal. Later, he used Renren, a Chinese social networking service similar to Facebook and Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.

In 2013, he installed Weixin on his smartphone. “Every time I come to China, Weixin has new features,” Nishikawa said at the 2023 Future Close-Up Forum in Beijing on June 20. In his eyes, the continuous upgrading of the app mirrors the ever-swifter progress of China’s digitalization process.

At present, Weixin has become a multifunctional mobile application involving instant messaging, social media and mobile payment. Most people living in China use the app, together with other digital tools such as instant food delivery service apps, and Didi Chuxing (China’s Uber equivalent), to meet their daily needs.

China is a country where with just a smartphone in your hand, you can do everything,” Zhang Weiwei, Director of the China Institute at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told the forum. As a result, “Most people here haven’t had a physical wallet on them for five or six years,” he added.

Patrick Jack Robertson from Britain, CEO of Smart Air, a Beijing-based social enterprise tackling air pollution, echoed Zhang’s remarks. Ten years ago, when the Brit first set foot on Chinese soil, he still needed to use cash and had to stand in line at the train station for an hour just to get a ticket. Today, he buys a digital ticket online and takes his passport to check in at the station.

“What impressed me most is how convenient technology is to use here in China,” Luis Filipe de Souza Porto, a young 2023 Future Close-Up participant and a researcher of international relations at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil, told Beijing Review.

Digital economy

The closing forum of the program released a report on China and the world’s digital economy titled Global Youth Wisdom: Digital Economy Makes the World a Better Place. The report was based on in-depth interviews with about 100 Gen Zs from different countries on their lifestyles and digital preferences.

China has the world’s second largest digital economy in terms of value, the report read. In 2021, the combined value of the digital economy in 47 major countries accounted for 45 percent of their GDP, while last year, China’s digital economy accounted for 41 percent of the country’s GDP.

Ninety-five percent of surveyed Gen Zs said they engaged in digital activities every day and were fully aware of the enormous impact the digital economy has on people’s lives. Gen Zs “have a clear and dialectical understanding of the digital economy,” according to the report. They have a deep sense of the positive impact of the digital economy on personal life, global economic development and social progress, believe that the digital economy makes the world better, and are fully confident in the future development of the digital economy, the document further read.

Zhang Jun, General Manager of Tencent’s Marketing and Public Relations Department, said at the forum that through the Future Close-Up Program, Chinese and foreign youth came to realize they actually have a lot in common: their expectations for digital technology by large are high, and they brim with curiosity as well as a desire to uncover and understand the future.

Connecting

The participants, many of whom are social media influencers, shared their stories and experiences during the tour. Take Rida Hameed, a reporter for Pakistan’s K21 News, for example. Hameed shared a short video about her journey on Instagram which gained some 10,000 likes in a matter of minutes.

Long international flights and a packed schedule didn’t dampen participants’ enthusiasm. “I would like to learn more about the Chinese business landscape, meet like-minded businesspeople, explore ways to work with Chinese organizations and discover market trends in China,” Latvian Arthur Gopak, CEO and co-founder of AlphaGamma, a business portal for young professionals, told Beijing Review.

Igor Alexander Bello Tasic, founder and CEO of Meta Ventures, told Beijing Review that his company is a metaverse and technology research and development consulting firm based in Spain. During the tour, he said that this marked his very first visit to China, something he’d been looking forward to for years, and he joined the tour to gain a better grasp of how other young participants envision the future and how they might be able to work together to turn that vision into reality.

“As an entrepreneur, I hope to establish valuable business connections and understand China’s digital economy so that I can strive to promote the same in my country,” Jibran Ali Khan, CEO of JAK Education and Innovation Consultancy and Media Brick in Pakistan, told Beijing Review soon after his arrival in Shenzhen. Ali Khan, too, was a first-time China traveler and could hardly contain his excitement.

The trip did not disappoint. During their two-day stay in Shenzhen, they visited companies such as Tencent, Honor, a leading global provider of smart devices, and Ping An, one of China’s largest integrated financial groups. They had extensive in-person interactions with these companies’ employees to learn more about their latest tech endeavors. At the closing forum in Beijing, the program’s participants got the chance to talk with experts and other high-caliber young professionals to forge more new and interesting connections.

“Because of COVID-19, we lost the communication channels with overseas talents and high-caliber professionals and we must now reconnect to hear each other’s opinions,” Zhu Yuting, a participant of the program and an assistant professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore, told Beijing Review.

Li Yafang, President of the CICG Center for Americas, said in her speech at the forum that during this journey exploring China’s thriving tech industry, all young attendees had experienced and witnessed the development of China’s society, economy, technology and culture, while, at the same time, forging new bonds with people from different countries. “Every Chinese person you meet is a witness and participant in the development of contemporary China; their stories are a microcosm of the country’s development story in the new era,” she said.

Li said that as an “experienced youth,” she very much enjoys communication and interaction with young people, as well as looks forward to Chinese and foreign youths providing fresh perspectives on China and injecting new energy into the promotion of exchanges between China and other countries around the globe.

Participants shared their understanding about the country during their journey into its digital domain.

With the digital technologies, we are able to navigate both Beijing’s past and present, Tasic said after wrapping up the “digital day tour” of the capital city on June 17.

As China’s digital development is rapidly advancing, it’s important to assess how the use of artificial intelligence, the metaverse, virtual reality, etc. will affect people’s lives in the future. China is standing at the forefront of all these aspects and the lessons from China can be useful for emerging markets, Nishikawa said.

“As a Chinese citizen, I am proud of the developments in China’s digital economy over the past decade. I do feel that my life is becoming easier and easier thanks to technology,” Zhu said.

The 2023 Future Close-Up Program was only “the first step in a long journey,” Zhang Jun said. He believed that, in the future, we will all team up to build more bridges and platforms for communication, mutual trust and learning, and create more opportunities for everyone to communicate with each other.

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