Business Travel

How AI and Big Data Are Fuelling Beijing’s Startup Scene

The Chinese capital’s push to become a global innovation centre by 2050 is the latest ambition of a metropolis that recently unseated Silicon Valley as the world’s top tech hub

Beijing might be better known for the Forbidden City and the Great Wall than any modern marvel, but that’s all changing. The Chinese capital’s push to become a global innovation centre by 2050 is the latest ambition of a metropolis that is rapidly ascending world rankings as an incubator for tech companies and start-ups.

Much of Beijing’s success can be attributed to a single, government-backed technology hub in the northwestern part of the city: Zhongguancun. Starting out as a street selling consumer electronics four decades ago when China began its reform and opening-up phase, the area has since become known as the nation’s Silicon Valley. This epithet might soon need updating, following reports that Zhongguancun has already unseated Silicon Valley as the world’s top tech hub.

Thanks to a wealth of early-stage funding, abundant local talent pool (two of China’s top universities, Peking and Tsinghua, are nearby) and relatively affordable cost of living, Zhongguancun attracts many tech professionals, and has become home to a raft of Chinese giants including search engine Baidu, Weibo owners Sina Corp, e-commerce giant, ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing, research centres from major American tech firms like Google and Microsoft, and many more.

Zhongguancun is also China’s AI heartland, hosting about a dozen advanced AI labs operated by the likes of Baidu, Didi Chuxing and Microsoft. With more than 1,000 companies specialising in this technology, AI – along with big data and analytics – is one of Beijing’s key strengths. In the works is a US$2 billion AI park that aims to push China toward its ambition of becoming a world leader in the field by 2025.

The Person: Joe Xia

Putting the world on two wheels

Illustration: Ryan Chan

Mobike is not just a bike-sharing company, but a technology company.’ This has been Joe Xia’s guiding mantra ever since the Chinese software engineer co-launched Mobike in 2015, aged 34. Xia is old enough to remember a Beijing when bicycles were far more ubiquitous. But as people have grown richer and the subway networks bigger, bicycles have become scarcer. This presented a new problem – of ‘last mile’ transportation, that stretch between the metro station and office – which eventually led to the rise of bike-sharing schemes across China’s major cities in the mid-2010s.

Mobike is a full tech ecosystem, employing mobile apps, GPS and big data to move enormous numbers of people. All bikes feature an IoT (Internet of Things) motion-powered smart lock with sensors to be unlocked by the user’s smartphone. To minimise the need for maintenance, they’re also equipped with airless, puncture-proof tires, chainless transmissions and rust-proof frames. An inbuilt GPS system collects terabytes of data from the millions of rides each day, which is then analysed by the company’s own AI platform, called Magic Cube, to determine how their bikes are used and where they’re parked. This data is even being shared with city authorities when planning new subway stations and transport systems.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing (or riding) for Xia in the new age of bike-sharing. With multiple competitors entering the market, oversupply has hounded cities across China. Firms went bust, but Mobike weathered the storm, and in 2018 it was acquired by Meituan Dianping, a Tencent-backed conglomerate focusing on food delivery and consumer services.

Though he is no longer the firm’s CTO, Xia has long had his sights set on the next phase of shared transportation. ‘Right now, we’re covering three to five kilometres. How are we going to cover five to eight, or even beyond 25 kilometres?” he has asked. In August 2018, the first electric Mobike, created in association with Dutch design studio Springtime, was announced. And next? In several interviews, Xia has even discussed personal flying vehicles. The sky’s the limit.

Data Drop


Number of unicorns (start-ups valued at over US$1 billion) in Beijing.

663 million

Number of downloads of TikTok in 2018 – roughly 200 million more than Instagram.


The percentage of China’s search engine market captured by Beijing-based Baidu.

The Product: Face++

Big Brother is watching you

Illustration: Ryan Chan

Headquartered  in Zhongguancun, Megvii Technology is an AI-powered start-up developing market-leading deep learning models for computer vision. Its latest platform, Face++, uses AI to power advanced facial recognition and body recognition algorithms. So advanced, in fact, that China’s Ministry of Public Security, which manages a database of 1.4 billion people, is a customer.

In recent years, AI-powered technologies like Face++ have been applied to millions of security cameras across China to give the government an upper hand in catching criminals and rulebreakers. Face++ can analyse 106 data points on one’s face and confirm identity with a remarkable degree of accuracy. And being an open platform, it has been taken up by companies – and governments – all over the world.

Face++ is also being applied commercially to prevent fraud, improve safety (for ride-hailing services like Didi Chuxing), secure mobile payments and to verify identity for online account security. But facial recognition is just one part of Megvii’s business: the company has also created software development kits for gesture, posture and even skeleton recognition.

Ones to Watch


Launched by Beijing-based ByteDance, TikTok (known as Douyin in China) is a video-sharing app that went global in 2018. It is now available in more than 150 markets and 75 languages, and has spawned a raft of new internet celebrities and viral sensations.


This mobile e-vendor for vegetables is helping farmers move products from field to fork by connecting them directly to smalland medium-sized restaurants, grocery stores and individual households.

Mi Water Purifier

Xiaomi, the world’s fourth-largest smartphone manufacturer, also offers a range of smart lifestyle products under its ‘Mi Home’ umbrella. Its smartphone connected water purifier filters – and analyses – your tap water in real-time.

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