What Chinese tech CEOs are telling Beijing

The Chinese style of lobbying, in the form of “two sessions” proposals, is more open but less effective and helpful in deciphering what tech companies and Beijing want.

 Lenovo Group's CEO Yang Yuanqing.

NPC and CPPCC proposals are supposed to be expert advice on what the Chinese government should do next. But they can often double as open lobbying efforts.

Photo: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The CEOs of China’s largest tech companies have a wishlist for their government — at least, a version of their wishlist they can say publicly — for this year: Watch out for metaverse risks! The more electric vehicles, the merrier! Make AI greener!

Every year around March, Beijing holds the most important national political meetings: the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), usually referred to as the “two sessions.” Thousands of members — government officials, entrepreneurs, workers and academics — gather in Beijing for legislative discussions and to submit their “suggestions” (for NPC) and “proposals” (for CPPCC) to the national government.

These proposals are supposed to be expert advice on what the Chinese government should do next. But they can often basically double as open lobbying efforts. While lobbying is not officially allowed in China, business leaders who moonlight as two sessions members are free to make suggestions that benefit their own businesses. An electric vehicle company CEO, for example, could propose to advance the electrification of transportation, and it would not be seen as a conflict of interest.

Half of China’s most powerful people in tech are NPC or CPPCC members, including the founders of Tencent, Baidu, NetEase and Xiaomi. "Pony" Ma Huateng, CEO of Tencent, has been an NPC member since 2013 and has submitted over 50 suggestions in the past decade.

But not every tech executive has gotten involved: Neither Alibaba’s Jack Ma nor ByteDance’s Zhang Yiming have ever joined the national meetings. Personal scandals can also affect tech execs’ political participation. In 2019, "Richard" Liu Qiangdong, CEO of JD, China’s second-largest ecommerce company, quit his position as a CPPCC member soon after a sexual assault accusation against him.

Every year thousands of proposals and suggestions are submitted to the two sessions, of which about 80% will be distributed to relevant national ministries. Those ministries in turn are required to address these issues and write replies. The replies “perhaps more often than not reflect the government’s existing positions, but sometimes they do offer hints to possible changes in the future,” Zichen Wang, a journalist with Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, wrote in his personal newsletter.

With China’s government messaging often being murky, these proposals are helpful for deciphering what’s in Beijing’s favor each year.

Here are what China’s tech CEOs proposed to Beijing during the 2022 two sessions, which ran from March 4 to March 11.

Tencent founder and CEO "Pony" Ma Huateng

As an NPC member, Ma Huateng submitted six suggestions covering a wide range of topics this year.

Protocol previously reported how much Beijing values the idea of the “digital economy,” but Beijing has also been wary of the tech industry potentially driving out the brick-and-mortar economy. Ma’s first suggestion precisely addresses that concern: “Build up digital economy strengths by systematically facilitating the integration of digital and real economy.” He’s basically proposing that digital technologies, which Tencent is undoubtedly spearheading in China, can assist, rather than compete with, traditional sectors such as manufacturing.

Ma’s suggestions also mentioned buzzwords such as Web3, NFTs and the metaverse, but not in a positive way. He instead cautioned against financial and governmental risks that come with these new phenomena.

Some of his suggestions focus on using technology to preserve and promote Chinese culture and improve disaster responses. (He conveniently plugged in how Tencent’s shared docs product played a role in coordinating resources after the summer 2021 flood in China.) And other suggestions are less technology related, such as promoting environmental protection in southern China and rural development.

Baidu co-founder and CEO Robin Li

In recent years, Baidu has been rebranding from a search engine company to an AI company, and Robin Li’s CPPCC proposals stay close to what the company’s been doing. One of his proposals connects AI technology and climate, advocating for developing “Green AI” that consumes less energy.

His other two proposals center on self-driving technologies. Li proposed that China should expedite legislation for self-driving cars to get on the roads safely and encourage the overall digitization of China’s transportation system. It’s no coincidence that Baidu’s Apollo Robotaxi is one of the companies closest to offering commercial self-driving taxis in China.

Xiaomi founder and CEO Lei Jun

Xiaomi is one of the highest-profile tech companies that has pivoted to making electric vehicles. It seems fitting that two of Lei Jun’s NPC suggestions this year were about electric vehicles: one advocating for building more EV charging infrastructure, and another proposing a “carbon footprint auditing system” for EVs that help the industry stay on track with China’s climate goals.

His two other suggestions asked private companies to invest more in corporate social responsibility — reminiscent of the “common prosperity” goal Xi Jinping introduced last year — and push for China to improve its electronics waste recycling system.

Sequoia China founding partner Neil Shen

The only CPPCC member from a venture capitalist background, Neil Shen’s five proposals hinted at the sectors that his fund may continue to invest in. As consumer tech companies often fall prey to China’s increasingly strict regulations, advanced technologies in biomedicine and environmental science have become more popular among investors.

Shen’s five proposals this year include: accelerating the revolution of green, low-carbon technologies; researching the commercial application of microorganisms in agriculture; improving China’s pharmaceutical innovation capacity; investing in neuroscience research; and supporting the manufacturing industry to go digital and intelligent.

Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing

Among the tech CEOs, Yang Yuanqing’s NPC proposals seem the least connected to his own business’s interests. One proposal he submitted this year called for more gender equality in employment, including equal pay, a minimum quota of female representation in workplaces and a flexible parental leave system for both men and women.

His other proposal focuses on supporting small and medium-sized businesses by providing favorable tax policies and government support in digitization.

NetEase founder and CEO Ding Lei

While NetEase is mostly known as a gaming company these days, Ding Lei’s CPPCC proposals are more diverse than his company’s businesses. The only proposal that seems closely related to NetEase called for building an “international platform for intellectual property trading.” The NFT craze in the West has inspired several Chinese tech giants to build blockchain-based digital IP protection systems, and NetEase is one of them, with its platform Planet NFT released in January.

Ding’s other proposals focused on EV battery material research, electric bicycles, emergency medical services education and the civil aviation industry.

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