Chinese Characteristics: One Year In

Happy birthday to us!

I've been drafting a variant of this post for a year, wondering whether I'll get to post it. Today I do. 

First of all, thank you. I've read those platitudes a million times in other publications, and mine will be just as trite because thank you, thank you, thank you — for paying attention, sharing, and subscribing to this newsletter. It means the world to me.

In a year, Chinese Characteristics has grown from four plucky folks (because that was how many friends I could find to read about Chinese tech) to tens of thousands of subscribers and hundreds of premium subscribers. It is profoundly humbling for someone who had never written on the internet before.

Though it has only been a year, I look back at Lillian 2020 with amazement at her foolish conviction. Contrary to typical Lillianness, there was never any grand plan. I knew the chances of success on the internet through writing are as minuscule as content is plentiful. But there was nothing to lose since I had just walked away from it all (it all being a career in European VC).

The newsletter was born out of a desire to read what I could not find — longform analysis on Chinese tech that was as thoughtful as Ben Thompson's Stratechery, as sardonic as Matt Levine's Money Stuff and as comprehensive as Acquired — while the realisation of such lofty ambitions is still a work in progress; writing the first pieces was my solace in the loneliness of hotel quarantine.

I kept writing because Chinese tech deserved in-depth analysis, chronicles and context, and if not now, then when? And if not me, then who? Lastly, writing was my way of reconstructing my self-worth, especially after a lifetime of immigrant survival tactics in the form of prestige hoarding.

The progress trickled in and started to snowball in the first few months. Each surge of sign-ups led to excited insomniac nights. Each unsubscribe email hinted at my delusions of grandeur. My undying gratitude goes to the first seven paid subscribers on that December day when I started paid offerings. It was the market proof that said my time was not wasted. As the paid members grew throughout the months, spiked by increasingly exploratory pieces on Chinese governance and tech trends, I dared to feel that maybe it would work out.

In coming back to China in 2020, I inadvertently became the pig that stands at the fengkou (mouth of the wind tunnel). Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, Chinese tech is struggling to find new directions as it faces diminish growth and grapples with regulatory reckoning. My work hit on a slumbering need, to know what’s actually going on in Chinese tech, beyond the official messaging and simplistic equivalence to Western tech companies. There’s been no substitute for being on the ground, experiencing things first-hand and processing reactions in real-time.

I feel bashful saying that I'm proud of what we've achieved in a year, as that is not a statement with Chinese characteristics. But you see, a year ago, I landed in China with an internet connection, supportive parents and not much else. A year later, tens of thousands of you read my work, pay for it and share it with others because you find it valuable. We have created this out of nothing. That is astounding to me. I have known since I was a child that the internet can be a very kind place, I did not know how kind it could really be.

I'd like to thank my parents (my mum especially for first hearing me out and then for playing dumb when people were asking her what I was doing) and also Noah, Alex, David, Vinoth, Cedric, Meri, Christina, VIP Asian VC Whatsapp, my collaborators, the Substack team and everyone who is reading this now and follows me on Twitter. My work means that much more because you are part of the process.

Thanks for a good beginning; here’s to the next year!

My plan for the rest of August is to take two weeks off; chill, reflect and draft the Chinese Characteristics Five-Year Plan. Billing will be paused for all paid subscribers from August 15 until August 31. There'll still be guest posts coming, so look out for those.

In the meantime, the product walkthrough for Kuaishou is in the Chinese Characteristics Circle Community. Taobao Walkthrough and Xiaomi deep-dive will be released by the end of the week for premium subscribers.

And again, thank you.