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Digital Leapfrog in China

FILE PHOTO: A sign of Alibaba Group is seen during the third annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of JiaxingFILE PHOTO: A sign of Alibaba Group is seen during the third annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of Jiaxing
A national champion.REUTERS/Aly Song/File

Good morning.

Can China become the world’s innovation leader?

I’ve been a skeptic, mainly because I don’t see how an economy dominated by state-owned enterprises can take the lead in disruptive technologies. But at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International event in Hong Kong today, I was surrounded by women who disagree.

“We see China leapfrogging in digital technologies over a lot of the developed world,” said Kathryn Shih, president of Asia Pacific for UBS. And while China’s state-owned enterprises may not be the world’s technology leaders, China’s consumers certainly are. “Consumers have embraced technology here much faster than their counterparts in other parts of the world,” says Wan Ling Martello, head of Asia for Nestlé. “E-commerce is bigger in China than in the U.S. and Europe combined.”

Martello sits on the board of Alibaba, and says China’s big three tech companies—known collectively as BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent)—are underappreciated in the West, where the ruling acronym is FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google). “I think what they are doing is much more expansive than what people are doing in the U.S.,” says Martello. “They are doing very interesting things that aren’t well understood by their Western counterparts.”

 

Even in the cutting edge world of artificial intelligence, the top three countries—the U.S., India, and China—“all have an abundance of talent,” says Leonie Valentine, managing director for Google Hong Kong. “It’s less a race and more a collaboration.”

I’m spending part of my time this week in search of top Chinese innovators, in order to bring them to the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou Dec. 6-8. It’s our premier CEO event, and while attendance is by invitation only, CEO Daily readers get special consideration. You can request an invitation here.

And if you are in New York, you may want to join our Fortune China Leadership Dinner on March 13, where I’ll be interviewing Fed Ex CEO Fred Smith on the future of globalization, and where we will be gathering ideas for the Guangzhou event. If you want to be considered, send an email to NYChinaDinner@fortuneconf.com.