When Mark Zuckerberg announced in October 2021 that Facebook was changing its name to Meta Platforms Inc., making waves far beyond Silicon Valley. Overnight, there was also talk of the city in China, sparking fierce debates between founders, investors and their corporations.
No wonder the idea of metavers thrilled the Chinese tech community. Every few years a general theme emerges, bringing together talent and capital. The ability to ride these waves, or rather, to dictate and shape them, is equivalent to the power to capture fortunes. The metavers promised an entire world to explore and conquer beyond smartphones, an opportunity to jump on the giants of today who have come to dominate mobile computing.
Even on a personal level, I’ve seen over the years that countless colleagues and friends grew captivated by these cycles, chasing investment bubbles in real estate and private equity, working as government officials before moving on to startups. Within technology, investment issues have evolved in just a few years from social media and computer-based games, to mobile messaging to online offline services and now metavers. And Pony Ma Huateng, the lone chairman and co-founder of Chinese technology conglomerate Tencent Holdings Ltd., has always been one step ahead.
Commanding an entertainment and social media empire that rivaled Meta, in fact, Pony publicly set out a vision to build something very similar to the metavers just a few months before Zuckerberg announced the change of name for his company. He called the Internet Quan Zhen, which means “all real” Internet. The concept, while vaguely defined, includes the use of the web to combine manufacturing and work, and overlaps with many aspects of the Facebook co-founder’s vision. But this iteration could be very different, as it will be born under the watchful eye of Beijing from day one.
‘Metaverse’ first appeared as a word in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow shockwhich represented a world gripped by hyperinflation.
Stephenson imagined a world based on anarcho-capitalism. And like all cyberpunk literature, the story is underlined by strong tones of anti-authoritarianism. Assuming the Chinese government sees the merit of the technology, the metaversion in the future could be split in two: China and the rest of the world. Like the Internet, the world’s second largest economy is likely to protect its Internet users from the rest of the global metavers.
That China’s Internet industry has grown to its size today is due in part to the fact that the government kept it without any queue while keeping it behind a firewall. The country was more concerned with controlling gas, oil, telecommunications, finance and traditional media. Virtually unhindered, Western capital and local businessmen found opportunities in Communist China to devise a formula that would unite global capital and technology with the world’s largest population.
The metavers will be a different story. While local government officials in cities like Shanghai seem to accept the concept, announcing its intention to favor its application to utilities, social entertainment, gaming and manufacturing, others are far less optimistic. Chinese economist Ren Zeping pointed to the dangers of a metaverse, accusing it of potentially causing lower birth and birth rates, the logic is that if people are too busy entertaining themselves in the virtual world, they shouldn’t to Look for Connections in the Virtual World a real one.