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China Roundup: GitHub's China ambitions and WeWork rival's big hopes

Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we are looking at how WeWork's largest rival in China -- UCommune -- is pulling ahead with its initial public offering and GitHub's potential big move in China.

GitHub turns to China

The world's largest source code repository host GitHub is mulling plans to open a Chinese subsidiary, the company's chief operating officer Erica Brescia told the Financial Times recently. The plan comes at a time when the technological rift between China and the U.S. is deepening. The U.S.'s trade sanctions on Huawei, which includes limiting the company's access to certain Android services, has stirred concerns of further "decoupling" between the two countries. Since then, Huawei has stepped up efforts to cut its reliance on American suppliers and develop its own core chips and software operating system.

American tech companies are feeling a similar chill from the trade war. Opening a China office could potentially help GitHub hedge against trade war bans and alleviate the company's risks in its second-largest market. The demand for a China backup plan appears to have grown after GitHub restricted accounts of users in Cuba, Iran and a few other countries to comply with U.S. sanctions, a decision that sparked an outcry from open-source developer communities around the world and worried Chinese users that the same could befall them.

On the other hand, developers in China and overseas worry that maintaining a China-based operation might subject GitHub's local projects to Beijing censorship as the country requires foreign companies operating in China to store users' data locally. Though GitHub has previously been blocked in China seemingly for sharing anti-censorship tools, the restriction was usually temporary. As of now, the site remains largely accessible in China, according to Greatfire.org, a website that monitors China's online censorship. But the concerns are justified. LinkedIn and Bing, sharing the same parent company -- Microsoft -- with GitHub, have been roundly criticized for practicing censorship in China.

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Big hopes and losses

China's shared space provider UCommune is moving ahead of its rival WeWork as it filed with the U.S. securities exchange for an IPO this week. Like its American counterpart, UCommune -- which rebranded from UrWork after a name dispute with WeWork -- hasn't yet found its way to profitability. The Beijing-based company posted a net loss of 573 million yuan ($80.13 million) for the first three quarters ended September 30, 2019, up from 271 million yuan a year earlier, shows its F1 filing.

UCommune founder Mao Daqing, a real estate veteran, has previously forecasted that China's co-working industry would be valued close to 100 billion yuan ($14 billion) by 2030. The reality is a bit more dismal. WeWork is reportedly coping with high vacancy rates across major Chinese cities, although sources told TechCrunch that spaces could be easily filled up with one or two large corporate contracts per location.

Perhaps more notably, half of UCommune's revenue is derived from so-called "marketing and branding services," which include content design as well as online and offline advertising services it sells to customers. The marketing segment, curiously, is attributed to one single subsidiary, a digital marketing services provider it acquired in late 2018. UCommune warns in its prospectus that "the historical financial results of our marketing and branding services may not serve as an adequate basis for evaluating the future financial results of this segment" because revenue from the unit relies overwhelmingly on a small number of major enterprise clients.

Also worth your attention...

Despite Huawei's push to build its own alternative operating system -- HarmonyOS -- the Chinese giant is sticking with Android for the foreseeable future. At a company event this week in Shenzhen, its home city, consumer software executive Wang Chenglu announced (in Chinese) that all of Huawei's handsets, tablets and laptops will continue to carry Android-based OS in 2020. Meanwhile, Huawei's other products, including a broad range of Internet of Things that make up a smaller chunk of its consumer revenue, will ship with HarmonyOS.

Kuaishou, the largest rival to TikTok in China, has reached 100 million daily active users, the company announced (in Chinese) this week. Tencent-backed Kuaishou was one of China's first short-video apps to have attracted a meaningful following, but it was quickly leapfrogged by a latecomer, ByteDance's Douyin, which is TikTok's brand in China.

Though similarly focused on bite-sized videos, the two apps differ fundamentally in the way they distribute content. Trending videos on Douyin tend to come from pedigreed influencers and professional creators; users are fed what Douyin's complex algorithms determine as "quality" content. Kuaishou, in comparison, works to cultivate a sense of community as its users get exposed to a broader range of long-tail content -- often from creators with insignificant followings.

That places Douyin closer to a form of "media" and Kuaishou closer to a "social network," suggested (in Chinese) Liu Jianing, managing director of China's top boutique investment bank China Renaissance, at a recent industry conference. For that reason, the two apps also monetize differently -- while Douyin generates revenue mainly from ads, Kuaishou harnesses its social graphs to enable social commerce wherein shoppers leverage other users' recommendations to make purchases.

Update (December 17, 2019): Corrected Erica Brescia's title to COO.