China is far ahead of the West when it comes to digital commerce. The rapid development of digital reality in the Asian region currently leaves many questions unanswered in Western countries. In an interview, Björn Ognibeni, management consultant in the field of digital transformation and co-founder of ChinaBriefs.io, explains why it is important to focus on “Digital China” in the future.
pressrelations: Why should western companies deal with “Digital China”?
Björn Ognibeni: “Up to now the West has always been oriented towards the USA, but for some time now hardly anything really exciting has been reaching us from there. New products are now often to be found in Asia, and very strongly in China, where there is much more activity and innovative spirit than here in Germany.
What are some interesting digital trends and innovations in Asia at the moment?
Björn Ognibeni: “In China it is common to pay by cell phone, even in rural areas. Cash or credit cards are hardly used anymore. Also, regarding Covid-19, some trends can be observed here, for example hospitals use robot technology to be able to care for patients more efficiently. In the logistics sector, rural areas are already using drones for delivery, and there are also many exciting innovations in e-commerce. Basically, we find the same ideas in Asia as here, but they are already being applied there. What sounds futuristic to us is often already a reality in “Digital China”.
In which areas does China already use technology more intensively than us in the West?
Björn Ognibeni: “The world’s largest insurer Ping An, for example, uses AI systems to settle car insurance claims within minutes, and is already handling the vast majority of claims this way. Electric scooters have been on the roads in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing for ten years, and the charging infrastructure for electric cars is also remarkable. Charging stations can be reserved by cell phone so that they are really free when you get there. Trains travel at 350 kilometers per hour and are up to three times faster than trains in the West. Another example: In Shenzhen and Beijing, 5G is already largely completed, and other cities will soon follow. What takes a lot of time to implement in our country is done so incredibly quickly by the Chinese.
In your opinion, what are the reasons for the high level of innovation in China?
Björn Ognibeni: “An important factor is of course the authoritarian political system, which makes many things possible in China much faster than in democracies. Of course, there are downsides to this, like the opinions of all participants not being taken into account. That is why it takes years to build a railroad line here, whereas in China such a thing is implemented quite simply. For companies, however, another factor is much more important than politics: the openness of the Chinese to new ideas and concepts. Where we tend to be more reluctant to get excited about innovation, Chinese consumers are always willing to try new things. Asian companies also plan for the long term (Alibaba, for example, for 103 years) and make decisions extremely quickly. We often plan for quarters and then need years for individual decisions”.
What role does “Digital China” play in establishing global futuristic trends?
Björn Ognibeni: “The USA has driven trends and innovations over the last decades and has been able to establish rules in this process. China is now trying to do the same, for example by accelerating the expansion of AI technologies. The Chinese society represents completely different values than we do, which are then also reflected in their algorithms. While facial recognition, for example, is taken for granted there, we are still thinking about how we want to use such technology – which makes perfect sense in when you think about the long-term consequences of such technology. In the West, the stubborn notion persists that China is still copying innovations above all else, but this is no longer as much the case as it was a few years ago. This is demonstrated, for example, by mobile communications. The 2G network in China came from Siemens 20 years ago and the Chinese certainly learned a lot from us then. But today we can hardly build our 5G network without Chinese know-how. The exchange of knowledge is also hindered by language barriers. We publish our knowledge in English, which any Chinese expert can read. At the same time, our experts probably cannot do this with Chinese publications in most cases”.
What striking Chinese innovations is the West still far from? What distinguishes the Chinese future mentality from the Western one?
Björn Ognibeni: “There are certainly issues where concerns about privacy and data protection are absolutely justified. We have already mentioned the example of face recognition. But at the same time, there are many other areas where these concerns are unnecessary and we still don’t use the potential of Big Data and AI – e.g. for increasing efficiency in companies, production, etc. The current pandemic has shown us just how far behind we really are in terms of digitization: from distance learning in schools to digital prescriptions for medicines, there are many things in China that we could quickly introduce here. But instead of looking for solutions to problems, we are still too often preoccupied with the question of what is not possible.
What can we learn from China and perhaps East Asia as a whole in dealing with Corona – and what not?
Björn Ognibeni: “First of all, we have to realize where we stand exactly. We only ever compare ourselves with other western countries and that gives us the feeling that we are better off than we really are. What we overlook is that the problem of the pandemic in Asia has been dealt with much faster and more effective than in the West, which is now in a second wave. Of course, we can always argue about how much we can really trust the figures, especially from China. So maybe here’s a non-medical figure that is quite reliable: Alibaba made over 25 percent more sales at Singles Day this year than last year. Obviously the Chinese consumer is less worried than many of us. The economy has recovered quite quickly from the shock in the spring and in many Asian countries life has now more or less returned to normal. In China, this was certainly due to the very rigorous approach taken in the spring, but today such things are no longer necessary. In countries like Japan or South Korea, such massive restrictions on basic rights have never been an issue as they are in our country. It would certainly be too much to go into detail now to discuss why this was exactly the case.
What do you wish for the development of the western tech world in the long term? To what extent can China serve as a model?
Björn Ognibeni: “When it comes to innovation, it’s very similar to combating a pandemic. We first have to realize that we have a problem. In many areas we don’t even know how far behind we are. The first step would be to realize this. But that does not mean, of course, that we should adopt everything from there without criticism. Not at all. Instead, our goal should be to understand the developments there and then, on that basis, consider how to deal with them. Where there are trends that we think are wrong, we can then still consciously decide against them. Basically, we should learn one thing above all from the Chinese: the willingness to learn without prejudice!
Thanks for the interview!