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China Roundup: Alibaba to add 5,000 staff to cloud unit

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we have updates from Alibaba’s rapidly growing cloud computing unit, Apple’s controversial decision to remove two podcast apps from its Chinese App Store, and more.

China tech abroad

TikTok’s besieged rival

Zynn, a TikTok rival that had rocketed to the top of the download charts a few weeks since its launch in May, was removed from Google Play this week over plagiarism. Developed by Kuaishou, the nemesis of TikTok’s Chinese sister Douyin, Zynn is another made-in-China app that has recently taken the international market by storm.

In a statement (in Chinese) this week, Kuaishou said the removal was triggered by one complaint about a user-generated video that had stolen content from another platform. As venture capitalist Turner Novak observed, much of Zynn’s early content seemed to be ripped from TikTok.

The main driver of the app’s rise, however, is its reward system; it essentially pays users to use and promote its app, a strategy that has proven popular among China’s rural and small-town populations. Nasdaq-listed content aggregator Qutoutiao has used the same tactic to grow.

Whether this pay-to-use strategy is sustainable is yet to be seen. Zynn is apparently making efforts to retain users through other means, claiming it’s in talks with “celebrity-level” creators to enrich its content.

Alibaba hunts for global influencers to sell more

Influencers are in high demand these days. After proving the strategy of driving e-commerce sales through influencer live promotion, Alibaba decided it wanted to bring the model to overseas markets. As such, it put out a notice to recruit as many as 100,000 content creators who would help the Chinese giant promote products sold on its international marketplace, AliExpress.

Data center in Tibet to connect China to South Asia

Many may know that China has turned one of its poorest provinces Guizhou into a pivotal tech hub that’s home to many cloud services, including that of Apple China. Now China is morphing Tibet into another cloud computing center. One main project is a 645,000-square-meter data facility that will facilitate data exchange between China and South Asia.

China tech at home

Dingtalk as an OS

At its annual summit this week, Alibaba Cloud reiterated its latest strategy to “integrate cloud into Dingtalk (in Chinese),” its work collaboration app that’s analogous to Slack.

The slogan suggests the strategic role Alibaba wants Dingtalk to play: an operating system built on Alibaba Cloud, the world’s third-largest infrastructure as a service behind Amazon and Microsoft. It’s a relationship that echoes the one between Microsoft 365 and Azure, as president of Alibaba Cloud Zhang Jianfeng previously suggested in an interview (in Chinese).

Dingtalk, built initially for enterprise communication, has blossomed into an all-in-one platform with a myriad of third-party applications tailored to work, education and government services. For instance, the Ministry of Education can easily survey students and parents through Dingtalk. The app is now serving 15 million organizations and 300 million individual users.

On top of Dingtalk integration, Alibaba Cloud said it will hire up to 5,000 engineers this financial year to fuel growth in areas including network, databases and artificial intelligence. The recruitment came after Alibaba committed in April to spend 200 billion yuan ($28 billion) over the next three years to build more data infrastructure amid increased demand for services like video conferencing and live streaming as businesses adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apple bans podcast apps

Just as podcasts are gaining ground in China, two foreign podcast apps that appeal to independent content creators were banned from the Apple App Store. The move echoed Apple’s crackdown on Chinese-language podcasts on its own podcast platform last year this time.

Investor’s favorite app is back

Speaking of app removal, this week, many venture capitalists and product managers in China are celebrating the return of Jike (即刻). The social media app, which has a loyal following within the Chinese tech circle, was removed nearly a year ago from app stores for unspecified reasons, but many speculated it was due to censorship.

The app is a kind of a hybrid of Reddit and Twitter, allowing users to discover content and connect based on interests and topics. Many VCs and internet firm employees use it to trade gossip and share hot takes. Its death and life are a reminder of the immense regulatory uncertainty facing tech companies operating in China.

Sought-after Hong Kong listings

Two of the largest U.S.-traded Chinese companies are floating their shares in Hong Kong for secondary listings amid fraying ties between Beijing and Washington. NetEase, the second-biggest gaming company in the world after Tencent, jumped 6% from its offer price to HK$130 on the first day of trading this week. JD.com, the Alibaba archrival, has reportedly priced its offering at HK$226 a share.

Chip company Eswin raised $283 million

Eswin, a semiconductor company founded by the boss of Chinese display technology giant BOE Technology, has completed a sizable funding round as the Chinese government encourages domestic chip production.

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China Roundup: SoftBank leads Didi’s $500M round and Meituan crosses $100B valuation

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we had a barrage of news ranging from SoftBank’s latest bet on China’s autonomous driving sector to Chinese apps making waves in the U.S. (not TikTok).

China tech abroad

The other Chinese apps trending in America

TikTok isn’t the only app with a Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. A brand new short-video app called Zynn has been topping the iOS chart in America since May 26, just weeks after its debut. Zynn’s maker is no stranger to Chinese users: it was developed by short-video platform Kuaishou, the nemesis of Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister.

The killer feature behind Zynn’s rise is an incentive system that pays people small amounts of cash to sign up, watch videos or invite others to join, a common user acquisition tactic in the Chinese internet industry.

The other app that’s been trending in the U.S. for a while is News Break, a hyper-local news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng, with teams in China and the U.S. It announced a heavy-hitting move last week as it onboards Harry Shum, former boss of Microsoft AI and Research Group, as its board chairman.

Alibaba looks for overseas influencers

The Chinese e-commerce giant is searching for live-streaming hosts in Europe and other overseas countries to market its products on AliExpress, its marketplace for consumers outside China. Live-streaming dancing and singing is nothing new, but the model of selling through live videos, during which consumers can interact with a salesperson or session host, has gained major ground in China as shops remained shut for weeks during the coronavirus outbreak.

In Q1 2020, China recorded more than 4 million e-commerce live-streaming sessions across various platforms, including Alibaba. Now the Chinese giant wants to replicate its success abroad, pledging that the new business model can create up to 100,000 new jobs for content creators around the world.

Oppo in Germany

Oppo announced last week its new European headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, a sign that the Chinese smartphone maker has gotten more serious on the continent. The move came weeks after it signed a distribution deal with Vodafone to sell its phones in seven European countries. Oppo was also one of the first manufacturers to launch a 5G commercial phone in Europe.

Chinese tech stocks return

We speculated last week that Hong Kong might become an increasingly appealing destination for U.S.-listed Chinese tech companies, many of which will be feeling the heat of tightening accounting rules targeting foreign companies. Two firms have already taken action. JD.com and NetEase, two of China’s biggest internet firms, have won approvals to list in Hong Kong, Bloomberg reported, citing sources.

China tech back home

SoftBank doubles down on Didi

Massive losses in SoftBank’s first Vision Fund didn’t seem to deter the Japanese startup benefactor from placing bold bets. China’s ride-hailing giant Didi has completed an outsized investment of over $500 million in its new autonomous driving subsidiary. The financing led by SoftBank marked the single-largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector.

The capital will give Didi a huge boost in the race to win the autonomous driving race, where it is a relative latecomer. It’s competing with deep-pocketed players that are aggressively testing across the world, including the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, and startups such as Momenta, NIO and Pony.ai.

Marriage of e-commerce and live streaming

Speaking of live-streaming e-commerce, two of China’s biggest internet companies have teamed up to exploit the new business model. JD, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time archrival, has signed a strategic partnership with Kuaishou — yes, the maker of Zynn and TikTok’s rival in China.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet, where short video apps and e-commerce platforms pally up to explore new monetization avenues. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products.

Meituan hit record valuation

Despite reporting an unprofitable first quarter, Meituan, a leader in China’s food delivery sector, saw its shares reach a record high last week to bring its valuation to over $100 billion.

Notion got banned in China, briefly

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation and has attracted a loyal following in China, was briefly banned in China last week. It’s still investigating the cause of the ban, but the timing noticeably coincided with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to COVID-19. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

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