For ample evidence of China’s continued emergence on the global tech scene, look no further than Greater China’s three major tech conferences in 2011: the Great Wall Club’s GMIC, AllThingsD’s AsiaD and TechCrunch’s Disrupt Beijing. Follow along for the tale of three conferences.
It’s worth pointing out that AllThingsD and TechCrunch chose to make Hong Kong and Beijing, respectively, the destinations for their first forays into international conferences. If anything, it’s a vote of affirmation from the masthead blogs. They’re acting on something that so many of us on the ground here in China have felt in recent years: The time has come for the world to take full note of the China tech scene.
The fact that AsiaD ended up hosting their conference at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong is not insignificant. It’s the kind of posh, classy venue you’d expect from the confluence of a blog backed by The Wall Street Journal and a city with as cosmopolitan a reputation as Hong Kong. I’d venture a guess, too, that holding the event Hong Kong helps attract more marquis speakers since it doesn’t require a visa for most western visitors and can more easily offer the kind of pampering that high-level executives might require.
High-levels were in no short supply: AsiaD’s speaker list included Microsoft’s Windows Phone head Andy Lees and Google Android chief Andy Rubin. The publication had also originally managed to convince Apple Senior Vice President of Marketing Phil Schiller to make the trip, but he had to cancel at the last moment in order to attend a company-wide memorial service for the late Steve Jobs. Had Schiller been in attendance, he would have rounded out the confab by representing the last of the “Big 3” of mobile operating system software. AsiaD also attracted prominent executives leading the social media charge, namely Jack Dorsey of Twitter infamy and Bradley Horowitz, Google’s VP for the Google+ platform.
Noticeably missing from AsiaD, however, were key players in the Chinese tech scene, with Alibaba’s Jack Ma being one of the few representatives. As such, AsiaD was an undeniably impressive event for its ability to draw in international tech super stars, but it lacked in its ability to interface with the Chinese tech industry.
To be fair, Google and Microsoft did toss Asia a few bones. At AsiaD, Lees showed off the new Windows Phone interface that had been redesigned for Mandarin and other East Asian languages. Google and Samsung unveiled Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus in Hong Kong just prior to the event, though the launch event was originally planned for the week prior in San Diego. At the very least, Google’s timing made it convenient for journalists to cover the ICS event and then head over to the Grand Hyatt for AsiaD.
Frankly, I was mildly surprised that TechCrunch was unable to draw in some bigger international names to Disrupt Beijing. Sarah Lacy admitted on-stage at the conference that she had some trouble getting people to commit to speaking at the event. To her credit, though, she was able to convince the legendary Pony Ma to give his first on-stage interview with a foreign journalist to kick off the event. Lei Jun was also around to discuss the buzz-building XiaoMi Android phone.
With all due respect, Disrupt Beijing seemed a bit like a beta test in some respects. Arriving at the China National Convention Center the first morning of the conference, I was surprised to see no visible signage for the event. I even double-checked my printed out ticket because I half suspected that I had come to the wrong venue. There was some kind of import auto show going on at the CNCC, as well as, oddly enough, a mobile Internet conference that appeared to be hosted by that goliath of Chinese mobility: China Mobile.
It’s not immediately clear what happened with the event signage, but, at least for me, it was an uncanny experience that highlighted an underlying reality about Disrupt Beijing. Yes, TechCrunch is huge here in China: several Chinese entrepreneurs readily admitted that they read TC religiously to keep track of what’s going on in the U.S. market, especially Silicon Valley, but, at the city level, Disrupt: Beijing lacked some of the pomp and ceremony that would have been expected from what is widely believed to be the most influential blog in tech.
To its credit, given the logistical nightmare of trying to put on an event here on the Mainland, who can blame TechCrunch for having a bit of a learning curve? One of the Disrupt organizers confessed to me during the event that the CNCC wasn’t their first choice for a venue. Apparently they had tried to rent out the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 798, but they were unable to make the dates work. Given UCCA’s prominent role within the Beijing art scene and 798’s reputation as the de facto district for mainstream commercialized art (edgier underground artists have trickled farther out from the city), the venue would have been a bold statement for the publication’s splash landing in China.
As far as size goes, the first day of Disrupt Beijing saw about 1,100 attendees, with some sessions packed to standing room capacity. 1,100 people is no small feat, but it did feel a bit odd meeting in a side ballroom while other side events took up the main rooms.
TechCrunch, which built its reputation on being notoriously hard-hitting, wasn’t pulling any punches at Disrupt. At one point, Lacy threw down with some Chinese VCs over whether they were discouraging innovation by only funding startups who were rehashing already proven ideas. To that end, it was nice to see the publication work for nuance when dealing with China. There are several versions, good and bad, of the China tech story that lazy commentators can take, so I appreciated the care that TC took to address the issue of “clones” in China without going all bad on the scene.
“If TechCrunch didn’t believe in Chinese innovation, we wouldn’t have held our first international conference there,” Lacy wrote after the event. TC has definitely put its money where its mouth is, too, using the run-up to Disrupt Beijing to formally launch its plans for a localized China site. I’m sure the organizers learned a lot, probably more than they ever wanted to know, about putting on a conference in China, so let’s hope they put that knowledge to good use with another Disrupt Beijing next year.
TechCrunch Mobile editor Greg Kumparak recently suggested on Twitter that the site is planning on there being a next year, though the specific details are presumably still in the works. “Met more awesome people in the 5-day trip to Disrupt Beijing than I can count. If you don’t go next year, you’re crazy,” he wrote.
Global Mobile Internet Conference, Great Wall Club
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room, especially given the fact that this particular elephant had more than 3,000 attendees at its conference this year, making it the largest of its kind in Asia. Great Wall Club has worked hard to build up its Global Mobile Internet Conference as the premiere tech event in China. GMIC 2011 packed out the CNCC and GMIC 2012 could see as many as 5,000 attendees.
GMIC 2011 had probably the strongest group of high-powered local speakers among this year’s three big conferences, though that’s to be expected given GWC’s active presence here in China and especially Beijing. Google China head John Liu, Lei Jun and Sina’s Charles Chao were all in attendance, plus numerous others that I’ll spare you from listing.
As GMIC gains clout on an international level, I’m looking forward to seeing GWC synergize its excellent local connections with high-level (and interesting!) foreign tech players. The 2012 speaker list already looks promising, and there are still roughly 180 days to go until the event.
The arrival of two new major tech conferences this year should do a lot toward letting the world know about the exciting developments going on here in China. And, in coming years, there’s certainly room for each of them and their individual strengths, be they big-name speaker draw, startup focus, international readership, sheer numbers, or local familiarity.
However, even if this has been a year of validation from conference planners and masthead publications, it’s still possible that sites will continue to face difficulty convincing their readerships that happenings in China are worth reading about. For instance, during Disrupt Beijing, Lacy mentioned that the event’s posts weren’t the most-read posts on the TechCrunch site, presumably a marked difference from the stateside Disrupts the publication has held in the past. In coming years, muted interest among western readers could stifle growth among conferences from international publications.
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it though. For now, China’s tech star is rising and the proof is in the conferences. Here’s looking forward to events next year and beyond. Hopefully I’ll see you there; I plan on being four rows back on the left.