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A Rendezvous With China’s ‘Mr. Big’—Data Sheet

October 30, 2019, 1:02 PM UTC

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Fifteen years ago, in an earlier incarnation as Fortune’s Asia editor, I traveled to the southern Chinese city of Huizhou to meet the 47-year old chairman of what I then considered China’s most ambitious consumer electronics manufacturer.

His name was Li Dongsheng, and his company, TCL Corporation, had just struck a deal to merge its television manufacturing facilities with those of French consumer electronics giant Thomson. The resulting venture, in which TCL had a 67% stake, was preparing to ship 18 million television sets in 2004—six million more than its nearest competitor.

My profile of Li (hailing him as “TV’s Mr. Big”) called that tie-up “one of the biggest deals in which a Chinese company has taken control of a Western enterprise,” and noted that it put TCL—along with appliance maker Haier, PC manufacturer Lenovo, and telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei—among a handful of Chinese companies with aspirations beyond their home market. “No company,” I declared, “has a better chance of becoming China’s first truly global corporation than TCL.”

That conclusion now feels a tad hyperbolic. TCL, it turned out, was embarking on a global odyssey with many twists and turns.

The joint venture with Thomson lost hundreds of millions of dollars and the value of its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange collapsed. European operations had to be wound down; Thomson bailed out. A 2004 deal with Alactel, the French telecommunications giant, to make mobile handsets, ran into similar trouble.

Worse, the chaos of those deals distracted Li from recognizing a fundamental industry shift: the TCL-Thomson venture turned out cumbersome old sets using cathode-ray tubes as consumers were rushing to buy flat-screens using liquid crystal display.

TCL eventually made the transition to flat panel displays, and now ranks No. 5 globally in televisions by units sold. Over the years, the company has diversified into a variety of different consumer electronics products including mobile phones and home appliances, manufactured under its own brands. And Li has made some quirky acquisitions, including rights to once-mighty gadgets like Palm and Blackberry.

TCL still posts solid financials: in 2018 the company reported net income of nearly $500 million on sales of about $16 billion. More than half of revenue came from outside China.

But Li is swinging for the fences. Last year, he announced a sweeping restructuring plan that calls for offloading stakes in nine consumer-facing businesses to a new privately controlled holding company so that the listed TCL Corporation can focus on semiconductors and high-end display technologies.

We’ll have a chance to hear from Li himself about those plans, and his thoughts about the broader evolution of China’s tech scene, when I interview him at the Fortune Global Tech Forum in Guangzhou November 7-8. It’s by invitation only, but there are still a few places left. Register here!

Clay Chandler

On Twitter: @claychandler


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Getting my day in court. Case not dismissed for Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The billionaire who doesn't hold back must face a trial for the defamation lawsuit brought by British cave rescue diver Vernon Unsworth, who Musk referred to as "pedo guy" last summer.

Getting my day in the spotlight. Friday is the opening of Apple's video service, Apple TV+, but AT&T tried to steal some attention on Tuesday by announcing details of its forthcoming service, HBO Max. It will cost $15 a month when it goes on sale next May and include original content plus a vast library that will have every episode of Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and South Park. But while those services vie for your your eyeballs, Sony said it will shut down its cable-bundle like online service called Playstation Vue. "We have decided to remain focused on our core gaming business," Sony said. Sounds smart.

Siri, uninstall. In less positive Apple news, the company had to pull a software update for its not-quite-a-hit smart speaker, the HomePod, after the update bricked some customers' devices. If you are offered a chance to install HomePod update 13.2, don't do it.

Gizmoland. They may not be the most groundbreaking laptops ever released, but I love the striking blue accents and more Samsung-y design language of the new Galaxy Book Flex and Galaxy Book Ion unveiled on Tuesday. The laptops, arriving early next year, run Windows on Intel chips and QLED displays.

Up, up and almost away. On Wall Street, Advanced Micro Devices did just about enough to keep the party rolling. The chipmaker said third quarter revenue rose 9% to $1.8 billion, its best quarter since 2005, but its fourth quarter forecast was a little light. Its shares, up an eye-popping 79% in 2019, were down 1% in pre-market trading on Wednesday.

Here comes the judge. Finally, in our court room reporter segment, Facebook is suing Israeli spyware maker NSO Group, alleging that the company helped hack the phones of 1,400 WhatsApp users. And Uber is suing the City of Angels, arguing that L.A. authorities have no right to see location data from its scooter rental customers.


You may have heard that Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the Internet, marking five decades from when a computer in UCLA was connected to one at Stanford. Computer science Prof. Leonard Kleinrock, who developed some of the most important concepts in networking, was there that day. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, however, he's sounding a bit rueful about his creation. And he has some suggestions:

We could try to push the internet back toward its ethical roots. However, it would be a complex challenge requiring a joint effort by interested parties — which means pretty much everyone. We should pressure government officials and entities to more zealously monitor and adjudicate such internet abuses as cyberattacks, data breaches and piracy. Governments also should provide a forum to bring interested parties together to problem-solve. Citizen-users need to hold websites more accountable. When was the last time a website asked what privacy policy you would like applied to you? My guess is never. You should be able to clearly articulate your preferred privacy policy and reject websites that don’t meet your standards.


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Writer Roxane Gay has traveled on airplanes–a lot. And she has opinions. She is not a fan of United. Or of the Embraer 145 airplane. Or of the Atlanta airport. But it's Gay's detailed argument in favor of always checking bags, instead of carrying them on, that's the pièce de résistance of her recent travel essay. A must read (with thanks to Fortune digital editor Andrew Nusca for tweeting the link).

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter:@ampressman



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