We used to refer to Chinese technology in terms of more efficient factories, larger dams, faster transportation and better roads; in short, elements tied to the large-scale low-end manufacturing and massive infrastructure investment that have made the economy what it is today. Now we talk about greater video bandwidth, more mobile services and better online games, user experience-oriented breakthroughs for a more prosperous nation.
In this respect, the most profound change in China’s technology lies not in machines, devices or websites, but in people. These are the youngsters who do the assembly and coding, and more importantly, who consume the final products.
Young people in China have changed enormously compared with their parents’ generation. Wealth, education and information have changed their attitudes and expectations towards work, life and family.
Those born in the 1980s, nicknamed "strawberries" because they bruise easily, were the product of a China still rebuilding from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution – they remember the hard times but became accustomed to a nation on the rise. Those born in the 1990s, tagged as "jellies" because they are soft and somewhat superficial, have known only a China as an economic powerhouse. They have also grown up with the internet, a platform that has allowed an unprecedented ability to learn about – and engage with – China and the world.
We see the impact of these two groups on technology largely in terms of lifestyle choices. The Western marketing term LOHAS, which stands for "lifestyle of health and sustainability," is a useful touch point. Rather than working in dormitory factory town at one end of the spectrum or participating in soulless corporate drone work for a relatively decent wage at the other end, young people are looking for more of a work-life balance.
Requests to work part time, take extra leave or work from home are becoming more common, even if it means taking a pay cut. Time spent on travel, tai chi and other personal projects is deemed suitably fulfilling to be worth the difference.
These are of course the same young people buying goods online, watching videos, posting on bulletin boards and playing online games. As much as their horizons and approach to life has been broadened by technology, they are also its captive audience.
This is a generation fixated with entertainment – and they want it for free. Music, movies and games are all available in China without charge, and changing expectations is a much of a challenge here as it is in the US. For now, services and content will evolve to meet the demands of this younger audience, with market share prioritized above immediate returns.
Follow the online habits of China’s young generation and you see a roadmap for the development of consumer technology. Services will become more personal, connected and socially oriented. The rise of social gaming in particular doesn’t just mean better games for atypical gamers, but also better payment systems and better customer service. In some cases, the games will offer more in terms of entertainment than print and broadcast media or even live events.
Even standard services such as news, chat and e-commerce now take on a gaming or entertainment flavor. There is also game-play in the countless Groupon (a deal appears online and if a certain number of people sign up, it becomes available to all) and Foursquare (a location-based service whereby users check-in online at venues to qualify for special offers) clones in China, while social networks like RenRen and Kaixin001 are anchored more by entertainment than anything else.
Given the revenue potential of online games, regulation will remain a feature of the industry as it grows and matures. Government restrictions have led to protests online and offline from disenfranchised users – a reminder of how vocal and organized online communities can be.
Entertainment is the opiate of China’s younger masses; it is recognizable in the way they live their lives and in the way they interact with and through technology. The country’s real technological breakthrough, therefore, is as more about the emergence of consumers than the creation of new gadgetry.