Keong hee huat chye (happy lunar new year) from Singapore. The new year of the ox, which is said to promise prosperity, feels like a fitting moment to lead this week’s newsletter on how Asia’s central banks are ahead in the race to develop digital currencies. But with that comes issues around privacy, especially in the case of China. On a lighter note, check out Panasonic’s lockdown baby-talking companion robot, which sold out in a day. See you next week.
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Asian countries are racing to launch digital currencies. Among large economies, China is making the running with a digital renminbi that is being trialled in several cities and looks set to sharply enhance the surveillance capabilities of the state.
Cambodia has, in fact, already won the race. It launched a digital currency — the Bakong — late last year with the help of a Japanese fintech company. Thailand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea are conducting research and trials.
Key implications: State-developed digital currencies are very different from bitcoin and other decentralised, libertarian cryptos. Some, such as China’s “e-yuan”, allow the central bank to monitor all transactions at the individual level in real time, creating a kind of financial “Big Brother”.
This suggests a vast increase in the surveillance power of the Chinese state. Officials talk about exercising “controllable anonymity” over users of the e-yuan but analysts say they see few real restraints on Beijing being able to use the e-currency for political ends as well as to combat corruption and money laundering.
Upshot: The issue of safeguarding consumer privacy is likely to be much more contentious in Asian democracies such as Japan and South Korea than it has been in China. Privacy concerns could also act as a brake on the internationalisation of the digital renminbi, observers say.
Perhaps the status of “platformer” — which engenders decisive market power — in the semiconductor industry has shifted from chip vendor Intel to manufacturing specialist Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, argues Ken Koyanagi, Nikkei Asia editor-at-large. Intel used to have, and TSMC currently has, two crucial properties to be a platformer — the technologies and skills that others cannot easily copy and the neutrality to avoid direct competition with its own clients.
Intel used to dictate how chips were made while maintaining a de facto monopoly in the chip category called CPUs, the brain of personal computers and servers. Everyone in the computer business needed Intel chips as the basis of their hardware products, while most software makers designed their products to work with Intel chips.
Today, everyone in the computation business — including cloud platformers such as Amazon, artificial intelligence developers such as Google and smartphone chip designers such as Qualcomm — needs TSMC’s production skills and capacity.
In January, the governments of the US, Europe and Japan asked Taiwan through diplomatic channels to urge TSMC to increase production of automotive chips, which have been in severe shortage since last year. The Japanese government and industry got excited last week about TSMC’s plan to make an advanced R&D site near Tokyo. All these events reiterate how much the entire industry has ended up depending on this single Taiwanese company.
In today’s chip industry, it even looks as though it is TSMC that is outsourcing product idea-making, designing and marketing to those fabless chip vendors and IT giants, rather than the other way around.
Coupang’s founder Bom Suk Kim says his company’s mission is to “create a world where customers wonder: ‘How did I ever live without Coupang?’” If the South Korean ecommerce group’s high-profile US IPO goes as well as expected, investors may ask themselves the same thing. Its listing is likely to be the largest initial public offering by a foreign company in the US since Alibaba’s debut in 2014.
SoftBank-backed Coupang is hoping for a market valuation of more than $50bn following its listing on the New York Stock Exchange. The 11-year-old company is now South Korea’s dominant online retailer and has quadrupled its revenues since 2018. It promises one-day delivery on almost all of its products and can deliver several million items within just a few hours.
Kim, Coupang’s Seoul-born billionaire founder and CEO, is a Harvard MBA dropout who started the company as a Groupon-style daily deals business. But he saw the growing ecommerce potential to transform the business into a huge shopping platform with its own UPS-style logistics business. The company has, however, come under scrutiny for allegations of overworking staff.
This one happened last week but please bear with us because it was important. Chinese delivery group SF Holding, whose clients include Alibaba and Tencent, bought a majority stake in Hong Kong-listed Kerry Logistics, founded by Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok. The result is Asia’s biggest logistics business — though the companies insist the $2.3bn deal is a collaboration, not an acquisition.
The digital upgrades and global expansion of China’s logistics giants are a “big, big tech story” says one expert. Kerry Logistics will allow SF, which has the largest cargo freight fleet in China, to expand beyond the mainland into countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Many of SF’s mainland clients are expanding in Asia and its scale and expertise, coupled with Kerry’s existing business, will put it in a strong position against regional challengers such as Lalamove and Ninja Van. Kuok Khoon Hua, the youngest son of the founder, added in an interview: “We see China and Asia to be the growth driver in five to 10 years and beyond.”
“What would have been the financial damage if this drawing had fallen into China’s hands?” This quote comes from a must read on efforts by South Korea’s Samsung to curb Chinese corporate espionage.
Nearly 70 per cent of technology leaks from South Korea in the five years to 2019 were to China, according to a report submitted by the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s chief intelligence agency. Many involved technologies in fields in which South Korean companies were strong, such as semiconductors, displays and shipbuilding, the report said.