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Alibaba's Jack Ma greets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Seattle, 2015. Photo: Ted S. Warren, Pool/Getty Images

The culture of consumerism tracks back to 18th century Europe. Back then, it was all about fun and acquiring novelties from faraway places. Now, it's China's turn, but in its case, Beijing has woven consumerism into state policy — it's how President Xi Jinping has plotted to take the country to the next stage economically and geopolitically.

What's going on: Big Chinese tech companies are expected to play a larger role in society than the U.S. champions — Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, which carry American technology globally but are purely private. If they want to keep operating, especially at their scale, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent — known as BAT — must conform to effective political regulation.

  • The big picture: Xi needs the big companies. If China is to reach Xi's goal and capture the commanding heights of global technology in the 2020s — in AI, electric cars, robotics, aerospace — it's the BAT companies that will carry it there.
  • The essential players: Along with their current dominance of Chinese commerce, that fact makes BAT no less important than the government in fundamentally reshaping Chinese society.

But, but, but: When Alibaba founder Jack Ma speaks of wanting to help expand China's middle class, as he often does, including in this 2015 speech at Stanford, they are not mere words, says Shanghai-based Jonathan Woetzel of McKinsey. That is Xi's policy, so it has to be Ma's, too.

Driving it home: One message none of the tech tycoons missed was the 18-year prison sentence meted out in March to Wu Xiaohui, founder of Anbang Insurance.

  • The government "takes a light touch" toward tech and other startups when they launch, Woetzel said. "It provides lots of room to experiment. It can stimulate demand. But when they get big, the government starts to intervene in the form of regulation and supervision."

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
2 hours ago - World

Venezuela's predictable elections herald an uncertain future

The watchful eyes of Hugo Chávez on an election poster in Caracas. Photo: Cristian Hernandez/AFP via Getty

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro will complete his takeover of the last opposition-held body, and much of the world will refuse to recognize the results.

The big picture: The U.S. and dozens of other countries have backed an opposition boycott of the National Assembly elections on the grounds that — given Maduro's tactics (like tying jobs and welfare benefits to voting), track record, and control of the National Electoral Council — they will be neither free nor fair.

Biden plans to ask public to wear masks for first 100 days in office

Joe Biden. Photo: Mark Makela/Gettu Images

President-elect Joe Biden told CNN on Thursday that he plans to ask the American public to wear face masks for the first 100 days of his presidency.

The big picture: Biden also stated he has asked NIAID director Anthony Fauci to stay on in his current role, serve as a chief medical adviser and be part of his COVID-19 response team when he takes office early next year.