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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

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Dems fear supply-chain blame

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As supply-chain kinks drive up prices and disrupt holiday shopping, Democrats are scrambling to show action and deflect blame.

Why it matters: With their party controlling both the White House and Capitol, vulnerable Democrats worry supply-chain snafus will hurt them in next year's midterms.

2 hours ago - World

Scoop: Germany urges Congress not to sanction Putin’s pipeline

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The German government has urged members of Congress not to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arguing that doing so will "weaken" U.S. credibility and "ultimately damage transatlantic unity," according to documents obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: At a time when roughly 100,000 Russian troops are massing at its border, Ukraine views Nord Stream 2 as an existential threat to its security. The pipeline would circumvent Ukrainian transit infrastructure and deliver Russian gas directly to Germany, eliminating one of the last deterrents Ukraine has against an invasion.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

The benefits of giving cash directly on Giving Tuesday

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Direct cash giving — channeling donations to charities that dispense money, rather than goods or services — is emerging as the gold standard in anti-poverty philanthropy.

Why it matters: Giving Tuesday is this week, and the money donated that day can do the most good when it goes as directly as possible to those in the most need.