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China Tech Looks Unready for What’s Coming Next

Tim Culpan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Smartphones are a daily necessity, weddings will still go ahead, and enterprises will embrace digital upgrades. 

Those are just some of the justifications that Chinese technology companies such as Xiaomi Corp., Baidu Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. have for telling us that the worst may be behind them as the country gets through the Covid-19 pandemic. 

That’s a risky tone to take. A global recession is upon us, and they’re not fully taking it in.China is looking at the reopening this week of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, after months of lockdown and seeing it as a sign that things are getting better. The messaging is obvious: China is back in business, and its domestic companies are in the clear.

But the rest of the world sees a different picture: New York and Milan resemble ghost towns, Tokyo is facing a state of emergency, Manila is under curfew, and Singapore just banned gatherings. 

“Smartphone demand is resilient; it’s a daily necessity so demand will rebound quickly,” Xiaomi Corp. Chief Financial Officer Chew Shouzi said in a media teleconference March 31. “We are cautiously optimistic about smartphone demand in overseas markets when the epidemic is controlled.”

Overseas markets are not OK. Millions of consumers around the world will be left without the ability to pay rent or buy food. Smartphones aren’t likely to remain on the must-have list.

All told, more than 1 billion workers are at risk of a pay cut or losing their jobs, the International Labor Organization warns. In the space of just two weeks, the U.S. stunned economists with a record 10 million people filing for unemployment benefits. That may not seem like much in a world of 7.8 billion, yet America remains the world’s largest economy and each of those now jobless is a consumer who carries a lot more spending power than most global citizens. 

In China, it’s going to be difficult for even domestically focused enterprises to avoid any impact. While Xiaomi sounds optimistic, its biggest competitor is more cautious. Huawei Technologies Co., which gets more than half its revenue from handsets and mostly at home, recently told reporters that 2020 will be a challenging year but that it’s too early to make a forecast.

Tencent Holdings Ltd. has a taken a pragmatic approach to preserving its bottom line as revenue declines: cutting costs. Still, every yuan it’s not spending on marketing is one not flowing to other internet and media companies that depend on advertising sales to run their businesses. The social-media and online-games company is confident it can offset any short-term weakness with a push into new services, like cloud computing.

China’s coronavirus outbreak helped boost demand for Tencent’s enterprise products, part of a long-term trend, President Martin Lau told investors last month. While that may be true, it won’t help much if thousands of companies cut staff or even cease to operate.

That’s a real possibility. Chinese gross domestic product growth could slow to 1.5% for 2020, pushing the labor market to its toughest situation in 20 years, Wang Tao, chief China economist for UBS AG, said in a note to clients this week. Instead of urban employment growing by 10 million annually as in recent years, the figure may decline by a few million. Downward pressure is likely to continue for China’s international trade, pushing exports down 12% for the full year, she wrote.

China remains at the center of global technology manufacturing, and the outlook has deteriorated markedly. Researcher IDC Corp. just cut its 2020 forecast for global information technology spending growth to minus 2.7% from 5.1%. Beyond the drop in economic activity, many purchases will be delayed or cancelled purely due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s conclusion.

Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. posted a 12% drop in first-quarter revenue. The Taiwanese company employs up to 1 million people in China to churn out smartphones, games consoles, servers and consumer electronics. If demand for gadgets like Apple Inc.’s iPhones falls, the need for those workers disappears, and with it their spending power. That same scenario will play out for auto workers, garment makers, and machinery operators.

The flow-on effect from declining exports will be unavoidable. As my colleague Anjani Trivedi wrote last week, the country’s stimulus measures are paltry compared to what’s being meted out in the rest of the world.

That means domestic consumer markets may not be a haven. Millions fewer people will have the disposable income to shop on Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Taobao marketplace, or JD.com’s online outlets. They won’t be able to afford games or the products advertised on them, and many will need to tighten their belts when it comes to home delivery or eating out.

Chinese technology companies have spent the last few months adjusting to consumers who are stuck spending their money from home. They’ll soon need to grapple with the reality of customers caught with no money to spend at all. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

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