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9 minutes reading time (1768 words)

The Internet in China - Will it Follow Korea?

Looking at the Mashable.com infographic on China’s Internet speed and other stats, we started noticing similarities between where China is now and Korea was 10 years ago. Growth of broadband Internet availability is already remarkable in China, but we only need to look across the Yellow Sea - a one-hour flight - to Korea to see the real potential.

According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report published in July 2012, South Korea's high-speed Internet penetration rate topped 100 percent for the first time among the group's 34 nations, making it #1 in the world for broadband usage. Exceeding 100% is possible based on the connected devices per capita rather than each individual in the country having broadband access. For comparison purposes, the US is at 76%

After a 10 year break, I visited Korea in 2010 for a month-long project with one of the National Universities. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the level of infrastructure build out and ubiquity of free broadband wireless access, even in the smaller cities, was incredible.

It shouldn’t have come as such a big surprise; Korea has been making deep investments in national communications for over thirty years, beginning with a strategic move in the mid-1980s that separated voice and data traffic, effectively taking data away from the government voice monopoly, Korea Telecom, and giving a data monopoly to a company called DACOM, with the charter to develop a national plan for data networks. The economy was regulated at the time and the political system still very authoritarian. National policies (successive five-year plans initiated by strongman Park Chung Hee) dominated decisions about investments, especially in areas of finance, technology and industrial infrastructure.

One of the strategic initiatives was the national development of Value-Added Networks (VANs) that the conglomerate companies – Samsung, Hyundai, Lucky-Goldstar (LG), etc. - could use to connect their manufacturing operations with suppliers using ISDN technology. This telecom foundation was critical to the contribution of these companies in building an economy that grew from $2.7B in 1962 to $230B in 1989. GDP passed $1.5T (PPP) in 2011.

This brings us back to the point. There are a lot of similarities between China and Korea that could help us understand the potential explosion of Internet adoption and application in the PRC. Among the most relevant are:

Rapid economic growth: Korea’s economy grew at a compounded rate of over 8% between 1962 and 1989, laying the groundwork for it to be the 12th largest in the world today, despite a population of less than 50M. As seen in the Economist chart here, China’s GDP growth has grown at a rate above 10% since the early 1990s, and although it slowed significantly with the US downturn in 2008, it is still forecast to grow at an 8-9% rate through the end of next year, according to the IMF and major trading houses.

Infrastructure investment: Korea’s economy was managed through successive five-year plans that directed Bank of Korea investments deep into all areas of infrastructure and heavy industries, and these continue today, in a much more democratic - yet still pragmatic way, with huge projects to position the country as a commercial hub that can grow on the back of China’s emerging leadership role. In order to re-energize China’s economy the government poured over $630B into infrastructure projects in 2008/9. The second round, which seemed a little more cautious represented another $157B this year involving an additional 60 major projects. Even with this level of investment, there is a substantial IT gap that needs to be filled for SMBs to be able to automate effectively. Of the 3.7M SMBs in China, only 56% currently use PCs, while virtually all of Korea’s 3.2M SMBs have at least one PC and an internet connection.

Managed Economy: A large part of Korea’s success came from the ability to resist pressure to open up the economy and maintain a trade balance that spurred growth of a middle class, driven by domestic rivalry in the areas of steel, cars, consumer electronics, construction equipment, etc., followed by an explosion of exports in these areas. Korea’s strategic and geographic and political boundaries during the Cold War allowed them to resist this trade pressure. Situated between Japan, China and the Soviet Union, Korea’s security role superseded global corporate interests in agriculture, manufacturing and heavy industries allowing managed capital flow, political selection of winners, focus, hard work and sacrifice to build a robust economy from the ashes of the Korean Conflict. Also important was that the GDP per Capita only reached $5K in 1989, making it a little difficult to argue for changes that might have a destabilizing effect on the impressive string of results.

Now China has emerged as the new regional miracle and holds strong political, economic and military cards that will allow it to resist similar pressures and continue to exert control over its’ economy. While it remains very vulnerable to external forces such as financial volatility in Europe and the US, it has managed to control the areas of technology adoption and control of the mass (and individual) communications  For example Google’s only true global competition outside the US is Baidu; the leader in the PRC so far, and let’s not forget that Lenovo, the PC brand that IBM sold less than 10 years ago to its’ major Chinese ThinkPad OEM, is poised to overtake HP and Dell this year as the global leader in overall PC shipments, not just notebooks. Another relevant example is that Samsung was a strategic HP OEM for high-end workstations and low-end servers in the 1980s using PA-RISC architecture.  Intel won the war of the processors, making PA-RISC obsolete and Samsung became a global leader in memory chips and disk drives, which is now giving way to solid state memory, a fundamental component in the new generation of tablets PCs and other end-user devices. Oh yeah - Samsung is also a global leader in smartphones, shipping twice as many as Apple did last quarter; 50M vs. 26M. Oh yeah - they also supply Apple with a lot of important components. I would be scared too. But more to the point, Apple manufactures in China, just as IBM did with their flagship Notebook. Ironically, in the last few years Samsung emerged #1 in television shipments and has only been in that game since the late 1980s. This is not an argument for a managed economy - just some observations about long tail trends. My personal opinion is that Korea benefited from resisting pressure to open their economy too soon. I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions here.

Concentrated Population and Vertical Architecture: Korea’s Internet leadership benefited at least as much from the urban architecture as the government policies; maybe more. A small country with a rapidly-growing population and standard of living, Korea was transformed from a country of 1, 2 or 3 story cement block houses to a “Republic of Apartments” since the mid-1980s. In preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, thousands of post-Korean War tenements and lower quality housing was razed and hundreds of 20-30 story modern apartment blocks took their place. The current apartment complexes have everything needed for comfortable living, including underground shopping centers and subway stops – almost like small cities. And typically they are modern and very well built - think New York - not $700 a month on the other side of the tracks. By concentrating 20M people into Seoul, the vast majority of whom live in these towering apartment blocks, the challenge of providing the last half-mile can be solved by bringing fiber to the curb and connecting hundreds of families at a time. Now consider that according McKinsey, China will have 221 cities with over a million inhabitants by 2025, adding more urban population than the total US population.

To accommodate this growth, the country needs floor building space equivalent to the land mass of Switzerland, or up to 50K 30-floor+ skyscrapers. If that is not enough to make the point, one of the megacities planned is supposed to combine 9 existing cities in the Pearl River delta into a single megalopolis of 40 million inhabitants, ringing Hong Kong with China’s largest manufacturing center. This optimism has been slightly dampened by the bursting of the property bubble that came with the anticipated growth of the area, lots of empty office space and apartments. Despite the local setbacks, analysts at Goldman Sachs expect a “soft landing”. Personally, I don’t think anyone can accurately predict where any economy will be in two years, but we use the tools we have.

There are other similarities such as national pride, a hungry population that is willing to sacrifice, work ethic and cultural bonds, but for the sake of brevity we don’t need to go into a lot of detail here.

The Elephant in the Room: Most people would agree the biggest single risk to China following Korea’s lead on Internet adoption is whether the government can hold the population down while they become increasingly affluent and aware of the personal freedoms and opportunities in other advanced economies. In Korea, the catalyst for the explosive growth between 1990 and 2007, when per capita GDP reached $20K from $5K, was the first peaceful transfer of power to a civilian government. All of the Internet adoption and high tech growth followed this major political reform, and would have been very unlikely without it.  As described in our post about Managed Services adoption in the PRC Mid-Market, there is very quick adoption of the best new technologies (as long as they do not pose too much risk to the powers that be).  China could take a much faster path to prosperity by relaxing the political control on personal freedoms - but speed is not the priority and the problem with making political predictions is that it is much too complicated to get right. But it only takes one person, a Gandhi, Gorbachev, Aquino, or in China's case Deng Xiaoping to make history jump instead of crawl. It is good to keep in mind that stranger things have happened; none of the experts predicted the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992 and nobody could have imagined Korea bailing out Russia – the patron of their arch rivals in North Korea.

As might be more evident in this post, I am a Korea watcher, not a China watcher. For an expert view on what is happening in China related to Internet adoption and social issues, this TED presentation by Michael Anti (aka Jing Zhao)  is a good place to start.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2020

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