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Protocol | China

Quarantine, WeChat and chicken feet: How the pandemic has changed tech business travel to China

In 2020, visiting China for business can be a bit like playing the lottery.

Quarantine, WeChat and chicken feet: How the pandemic has changed tech business travel to China

After concluding his 14 days in isolation, startup adviser Kevin Yang was free to continue his business trip.

Photo: Kevin Yang

Kevin Yang has traveled to China countless times. As a former Huawei and Oppo executive, he used to visit the country almost every quarter. However, when Yang recently got ready to visit a Chinese startup he is advising, he quickly realized that the pandemic would make this a very different trip.

Yang has been documenting his trip in a series of LinkedIn posts, which offer some fascinating insights into the state of business travel during COVID, the ever-growing importance of WeChat in a country recovering from the pandemic, and shifts in the Chinese tech industry as it adapts to a rapidly changing world.

One of Yang's most striking observations is the omnipresence of WeChat in China, and the way the pandemic has reinforced its importance to the Chinese. To prepare for his trip, Yang joined a number of WeChat groups, which helped him get his documents in order. (To get a special visa, China currently requires an invite, a negative COVID test and more from foreign visitors). He also joined a dedicated WeChat group for passengers of his flight, and one to chat with people who had taken this very flight in recent weeks.

Once Yang landed in China, WeChat became even more important. Instead of filling out a customs form on paper, he prepared his customs declaration in a WeChat mini-app, which then generated a QR code that was scanned by customs officials. At the airport, he was prompted to scan another QR code to prepare for his local travel — all within WeChat. "The Chinese government wanted to make all the processes contactless," Yang told Protocol.

WeChat has long been a daily utility in China for everything from communication to cashless payments. However, the embrace of WeChat as an essential tool for international travel during the pandemic comes at a time when the Trump administration is pushing to ban the app from U.S. app stores. "It would make the process very difficult for foreign travelers," Yang said about a possible WeChat ban.

Once Yang arrived in China, he had to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a randomly assigned hotel. "Finding out the quarantine hotel is like opening a mystery box in 2020," he wrote on LinkedIn. On one of his WeChat groups, people had crowdsourced a number of hotels used to quarantine international travelers, complete with reports on whether the hotels allowed guests to order outside food. "Some were overjoyed to find that they were assigned to the so-called 'Lottery Hotels,'" he wrote. "Some were disappointed when they got a crappy hotel."

Yang ended up staying in two relatively basic hotels, one of which didn't allow outside food. Instead, hotel staff dropped off meals outside of his room three times a day. Yang was a bit disappointed by the choice of food, but some of his fellow international travelers had a much harder time. One visitor from Spain in particular wasn't exactly familiar with some of the traditional Chinese dishes, including chicken feet. "He complained all the time," Yang said.

One day, an ambulance arrived at the hotel to pick up one of the quarantined guests. On WeChat, other travelers started freaking out, worried that one of the guests had gotten COVID. But soon after, they learned that it was the Spaniard, who was being relocated to a Western-style hotel. He hadn't been ill; he just didn't like chicken feet.

Yang used much of his time in quarantine doing video chats to catch up with friends and colleagues, including some who he got to work with as a procurement director for Huawei. Many of the folks working in the chipset industry were especially upbeat, he noted on LinkedIn: "China is investing heavily […] in replacing American chips with homegrown solutions." Prompted by the escalating trade war, and attempts of the Trump administration to cut off companies like Huawei from the U.S. semiconductor supply chain, the Chinese government has rolled out massive incentives to kickstart homegrown chip production.

These measures include direct financial assistance from the government, as well as easier access to land and real estate to build out manufacturing capabilities. A year ago, it was still challenging to raise money for chip manufacturing in China, Yang said. These days, it has become one of the country's hottest investment areas. "This moment is huge," Yang said. "It's a gold rush."

Yang was able to leave quarantine after 14 days and another negative COVID test. Since then, he has been able to move about in China with few restrictions. He's taken taxis, subways, airplanes and other forms of transportation, noting at one point on LinkedIn that this alone felt like "a luxury in a world terrorized by COVID." "It's a very different feeling," he told Protocol.

In the end, Yang is glad that he traveled to China, even with the hassle of mandatory quarantine. Still, he cautioned that it can be especially challenging for anyone not fluent in Chinese. "Right now, it's difficult to travel to China for foreigners," Yang said. "Be prepared," he advised. "Do some research."

And, one might add, get ready to expand your culinary horizons.

Correction: The caption on the photo for this story misrepresented how many days Kevin Yang spent in quarantine. It was 14, not 11.

Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

As Plaid's chief operating officer, Sager has been helping the startup navigate that choppiness, from an abandoned merger with Visa to a harsh critique by the CEO of a top Wall Street bank.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Protocol | China

Everything you need to know about the Jingdong Logistics IPO

JDL wants to ride China's ecommerce wave and become the integrated logistics firm to rule them all.

BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 11, 2020: A view of the Jingdong logistics centre in southern Beijing, one of the largest in Asia, with its automated sorting equipment capable of processing up to 800,000 packages per day, and customers waiting no longer than a day for their orders to arrive. Jingdong is the leading Chinese e-commerce platform.

Photo: Artyom Ivanov\TASS via Getty Images

If Chinese ecommerce is a gold rush, Jingdong Logistics wants to sell everyone a pick and shovel.

That's the basic pitch behind an anticipated $5 billion IPO in Hong Kong that could value ecommerce giant JD.com's logistics arm at $40 billion, according to Bloomberg, making it the second most valuable third-party shipping company in China behind SF Express.

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David Wertime

David Wertime is Protocol's executive director. David is a widely cited China expert with twenty years' experience who has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, founded and sold a media company, and worked in senior positions within multiple newsrooms. He also hosts POLITICO's China Watcher newsletter. After four years working on international deals for top law firms in New York and Hong Kong, David co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a website that tracked Chinese social media, later selling it to the Washington Post Company. David then served as Senior Editor for China at Foreign Policy magazine, where he launched the first Chinese-language articles in the publication's history. Thereafter, he was Entrepreneur in Residence at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2019, David joined Protocol's parent company and in 2020, launched POLITICO's widely-read China Watcher. David is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China, a Member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and a Truman National Security fellow. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Diane and his puppy, Luna.

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