Google makes $550M strategic investment in Chinese e-commerce firm JD.com

Google has been increasing its presence in China in recent times, and today it has continued that push by agreeing to a strategic partnership with e-commerce firm JD.com which will see Google purchase $550 million of shares in the Chinese firm.

Google has made investments in China, released products there and opened up offices that include an AI hub, but now it is working with JD.com largely outside of China. In a joint release, the companies said they would “collaborate on a range of strategic initiatives, including joint development of retail solutions” in Europe, the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

The goal here is to merge JD.com’s experience and technology in supply chain and logistics — in China, it has opened warehouses that use robots rather than workers — with Google’s customer reach, data and marketing to produce new kinds of online retail.

Initially, that will see the duo team up to offer JD.com products for sale on the Google Shopping platform across the word, but it seems clear that the companies have other collaborations in mind for the future.

JD.com is valued at around $60 billion, based on its NASDAQ share price, and the company has partnerships with the likes of Walmart and it has invested heavily in automated warehouse technology, drones and other ‘next-generation’ retail and logisitics.

The move for a distribution platform like Google to back a service provider like JD.com is interesting since the company, through search and advertising, has relationships with a range of e-commerce firms including JD.com’s arch rival Alibaba.

But it is a sign of the times for Google, which has already developed relationships with JD.com and its biggest backer Tencent, the $500 billion Chinese internet giant. All three companies have backed Go-Jek, the ride-hailing challenger in Southeast Asia, while Tencent and Google previously inked a patent sharing partnership and have co-invested in startups such as Chinese AI startup XtalPi.

China’s Didi Chuxing continues its international expansion with Australia launch

Didi Chuxing, China’s dominant ride-hailing company, is continuing its international expansion after it announced plans to launch in Australia this month.

The company — which bought Uber’s China business in 2016 — said it will begin serving customers in Melbourne from June 25 following a month-long trial period in Geelong, a neighboring city that’s 75km away. The business will be run by a Didi subsidiary in Australia and it plans to offer “a series of welcome packages to both drivers and riders” — aka discounts and promotions, no doubt. It began signing up drivers on June 1, the company added.

The Australia launch will again put Didi in direct competition with Uber, but that is becoming increasingly common, and also Ola and Didi which both count Didi as an investor — more on that below. This move follows forays into Taiwan, Mexico and Brazil this year as Didi has finally expanded beyond its China-based empire.

Didi raised $4 billion in December to develop AI, general technology and to fund international expansion and it has taken a variety of routes to doing the latter. This Australia launch is organic, with Didi developing its own team, while in Taiwan it has used a franchise model and it went into Brazil via acquisition, snapping up local Uber-rival 99 at a valuation of $1 billion.

It is also set to enter Japan where it has teamed up with investor SoftBank on a joint-venture.

“In 2018, Didi will continue to cultivate markets in Latin America, Australia and Japan. We are confident a combination of world-class transportation AI technology and deep local expertise will bring a better experience to overseas markets,” the company added in a statement.

This international expansion has also brought a new level of confusion since Didi has cultivated relationships with other ride-hailing companies across the world while also expanding its own presence internationally.

The Uber deal brought with it a stock swap — turning Didi and Uber from competitors into stakeholders — and the Chinese company has also backed Grab in Southeast Asia, Lyft in the U.S., Ola in India, Careem in the Middle East and — more recentlyTaxify, which is primarily focused on Europe and Africa.

In the case of Australia, Didi will come up against Uber, Ola — present in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney via an expansion made earlier this year — and Taxify, too. Uber vs Didi is to be expected — that’s a complicated relationship — but in taking on Ola (so soon after it came to Australia), Didi is competing directly with a company that it funded via an investment deal for the first time.

That might be a small insight into Didi’s relationship with Ola. Unlike Grab, which has seen Didi follow-on its investments, the Chinese firm sat out Ola’s most recent fundraising last year despite making an investment in the company back in 2015.

“The ride-hailing industry is still a young business, and the potential for growth is substantial. Competition exists in ride-hailing, like in any flourishing industry. But it leads to better products and services, which ultimately benefits users,” Didi told TechCrunch in a statement when asked about its new rivalry with Ola and Taxify.

Ola declined to comment. Taxify did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The move into Australia comes at a time when Didi is under intense pressure following the death of a passenger uses its ‘Hitch’ service last month.

The company suspended the Hitch service — which allows groups people who are headed in the same direction together — and removed a number of features while limiting its operations to day-time only. This week, it said it would resume night-time rides but only for drivers picking up passengers of the same sex.

NXP-Qualcomm $44B deal to clear China as Trump authorizes $50B tariffs

The U.S.-China trade battle enters an important new phase. The South China Morning Post is reporting that China’s Ministry of Commerce will clear Qualcomm’s pending $44 billion acquisition of NXP Semiconductors. One independent source also conveyed the same news to TechCrunch, although there has been no official word from Qualcomm, NXP or China at time of publication.

That acquisition was expected to close months ago, but the Chinese government repeatedly delayed its assent to the deal as part of its ongoing fight with the Trump administration over the future of bilateral trade. China’s ministry remained the last competition authority worldwide pending to approve the deal, and presumably it will close rapidly now that antitrust review has been completed.

The news of the approval broke just as The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House has authorized $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods. The final list of goods that will be subject to the tariffs has not been released, although TechCrunch has done a data analysis on the last set of tariffs, which focused on aluminum and steel imports. Direct news from the White House is expected Friday.

There has been a studied response and counter-response between the two countries over trade the past year, as both Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping sought high ground over the spat. The most recent set of issues has concerned ZTE, which was offered a reprieve by President Trump only to have its fate brought to Congress for a decision this week.

In my analysis on ZTE’s potential death sentence, I wrote this afternoon that:

Ironically — and to be clear on this view, I am not getting this from sources, but rather pointing out a unique strategy vector here — it might well be Qualcomm that uses its DC policy shop to try to save ZTE. Those lobbyists protected Qualcomm from a takeover by Broadcom earlier this year, and it could try to make the case to Congress that it will be irreparably damaged if legislators don’t back off their threats.

The timing of the approval for Qualcomm could come with an understanding that it help ZTE with its congressional woes. Qualcomm has already agreed to form a strategic partnership with Baidu in the interim around AI and deep learning, which one source said to me was part of a package of concessions offered to placate Beijing.

Without a doubt, the news will prove a rare bit of relief for Qualcomm, which has been buffeted by challenges over the past year, including its hostile takeover battle with Broadcom and ongoing patent lawsuits with some of its biggest customers like Apple. Shareholders are likely to be enthusiastic with the outcome, and the stock was up 3 percent in after-hours trading following the news.

The acquisition of NXP is expected to provide a new set of technologies and patents for Qualcomm, particularly in strategic growth spaces like automotive, where Qualcomm has been weak on its product side.

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Didi will resume late night Hitch rides, but only allow drivers to pick up passengers of the same sex

Didi Chuxing’s inter-city carpooling service will resume night operations on a limited basis about a month after a female passenger was allegedly murdered by an unregistered driver who accessed the platform using his father’s account. Called Didi Hitch, the service will return on June 15 with new safety measures, including one that only allows drivers to serve passengers of the same sex during late night hours. Didi Hitch will also began piloting a new feature later this month called “guardian mode” (not “escort mode” as reported by some publications) that automatically shares ride details with a passenger’s emergency contacts.

The company says Didi Hitch will resume partial nighttime service between the hours of 10PM to 12AM and 5AM to 6AM on June 15, but with what Didi says is a “tentative safety measure.” During those times, drivers will only be able to accept ride requests made by passengers of the same sex. In other words, male drivers can only accept male passengers, while female drivers can only accept female passengers.

Guardian mode will launch on June 22 as a smale-scale pilot. When a passenger turns it on, their route is automatically shared with their emergency contacts. Didi also says its platform can monitor routes in real time and “intervene in case of any unusual activity.” Another new feature, called the shared information card, will launch on the same day and display photos of both the driver and passenger and vehicle information, with the aim of allowing both parties to verify each other’s identities.

DiDi also said it will start trialing a voice recording feature for its other services, including Express, Select, ExpressPool and Minibus, in some cities.

One of the most highly-valued startups in the world, Didi now claims about 30 million daily rides and 21 million driver partners. For some passengers, however, these new safety measures may not be enough to reassure them. For one thing, last month’s murder meant that the alleged perpetrator was able to overcome several safety measures. First, he used his father’s verified driver account to access the platform. Secondly, Didi Chuxing’s facial recognition technology, which it has used since 2016 to verify drivers when they first sign up and then when they log in to start shifts, failed. Didi also said that the account had received a sexual harassment complaint before the murder, though it was unclear if that was while the father or son was using it. Didi apparently failed to contact the account despite making five efforts, but the platform nevertheless continued to allow it to accept rides.

While the new safeguards might placate some users, they don’t address the core issues brought up by the murder: making sure potentially dangerous people aren’t allowed on the platform in the first place, or are dealt with promptly when complaints surface. This is not the first time a murder has been linked to a Didi driver. Two years ago a driver allegedly confessed to robbing and killing a female passenger in Shenzhen.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a DiDi spokesperson said:

“After revamping our core safety functions (including enhanced facial recognition, upgraded in-app emergency buttons, and many more), we are taking cautious steps to gradually extend DiDi Hitch’s service hours in response to demands from users. This recent update will increase the range of mobility options available to passengers during these hours.

As we do so, DiDi Hitch is trialing with a number of safety initiatives based on feedback and advice from riders, drivers and other members of the public in China. We understand some of the tentative initiatives that have attracted a lot of public support in this round of consultation might have never been tried before. We will closely monitor and review the results from such experiments with the public, and make continuous adjustments. Our focus is on ensuring the Hitch service is brought back in a safe and responsible way; and that users understand–and join us as we work through–the challenges involved in providing sustainable, fair and safe mobility services. The Hitch and other teams will continue to work around the clock for ever more satisfactory solutions. We will keep you posted.”

TechCrunch has asked for further information about the sex ratio of drivers on Didi’s platform, since if they are predominantly male (as is the case with many taxi or ride-sharing services), then that may impact how many female passengers are able to get a late-night ride using Hitch, and will update this article if we hear back.

DiDi also confirmed today that it has placed RMB 1 million (about $150,000 ) into a fiduciary account of the Beijing Global Law Office to reward informants who are able to give information that can help police solve the case. if no information or evidence has been confirmed by police by September 1, then Didi says the money will be donated to the China Foundation for Justice and Courage, which is overseen by the Ministry of Public Security.

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Valve is bringing an official version of Steam to China

Valve is officially bringing its Steam game platform to China as it aims to take a chunk of the world’s largest market of gamers.

Valve said it will work with local partner Perfect World, which it previously collaborated on to release major games Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Shanghai-based Perfect World will control local promotional, the selection of games and distribution. There’s no confirmed date for when the Steam China service will go live.

The move makes perfect sense. For one thing, Valve has a vast opportunity to tap into. China’s games market is booming, with Newzoo forecasting that it represented $32.5 billion in 2017, ahead of the U.S., Japan, Germany and the UK. PC gaming has always been the base for revenue, but mobile is growing fast with Tencent — one of the largest gaming firms on the planet — recently reporting that its mobile revenue has overtaken that of PC.

But, as with all things China, access is uncertain. Parts of Valve’s service were blocked in China last December, although the ability to guy games remained intact. It isn’t clear why the partial blockage occurred — China frequently upgrades its firewall technology which can trigger changes — but working with a local partner is a more reliable approach than going solo. That said, Perfect World will have to manage the inevitable government censorship demands.

Despite having no official presence in China, more than one-quarter of Steam users have the language set to Basic Chinese, second only to English, according to a user survey. Whilst that also accounts for the Chinese diaspora, it is a sign that Steam already has significant traction among China’s gamers.

There’s plenty of competition in this space, so Valve won’t simply waltz into dominance. Tencent has its own Steam-like platform while NetEase has partnered with big U.S. gaming companies like Bungie and Blizzard.

After report on “appalling” conditions, Foxconn will investigate plant that makes Amazon devices

Foxconn Technology Group says it is investigating a factory it operates that makes Amazon devices, including Kindles, after an in-depth report by advocacy group China Labor Watch criticized its “appalling working conditions,” including excessive hours and over-reliance on temporary workers.

“We are carrying out a full investigation of the areas raised by the report, and if found to be true, immediate actions will be taken to bring the operations into compliance with our Code of Conduct,” Taiwan-based Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd., told Reuters.

New York-based China Labor Watch says its investigators were sent to the factory, which is located in south central China in Hunan Province’s Hengyang city and also makes Amazon’s Echo Dot Bluetooth speakers and tablets, from August 2017 to April 2018.

During that time, the group says it found that dispatch, or temporary, workers made up more than 40% of the workforce, far exceeding the 10% limit set by Chinese law. Dispatch workers were also treated very differently than regular workers, receiving far less safety training and no overtime wages. Instead, dispatch workers were paid the same rate, or 14.5 RMB ($2.26) an hour for both normal and overtime hours.

Though regular workers were better compensated in terms of wages and benefits, China Labor Watch says both groups were subjected to long hours and low wages, with workers putting in more than 100 overtime hours during peak season, even though the legal limit is 36 hours, and some working consecutively for 14 days. Workers on average earned wages between 2000 to 3000 RMB ($312.12 to $468.19), significantly less than Hengyang’s monthly average wage of 4,647 RMB ($725.22), but often had their overtime hours as punishment for taking leave or having unexcused absences.

The report also claimed that the factory had poor fire safety in its dormitories, lack of sufficiently protective equipment, verbally abusive managers and the “absence of a functioning labor union.”

“Amazon has the ability to not only ensure its supplier factories respects the rights of workers but also that there is equal pay for equal work,” said China Labor Watch on its site. “Amazon’s profits have come at the expense of workers who labor in appalling working conditions and have no choice but to work excessive overtime hours to sustain a livelihood.”

In a press statement, Amazon said it audited the Hengyang factory most recently in March 2018 and asked them to address “issues of concern” related to dispatch workers and overtime.

“Amazon takes reported violations of our Supplier Code of Conduct extremely seriously. Amazon regularly assesses suppliers, using independent auditors as appropriate, to monitor continued compliance and improvement. In the case of the Foxconn Hengyang factory, Amazon completed its most recent audit in March 2018 and identified two issues of concern. We immediately requested a corrective action plan from Foxconn Hengyang detailing their plan to remediate the issues identified, and we are conducting regular assessments to monitor for implementation and compliance with our Supplier Code of Conduct. We are committed to ensuring that these issues are resolved.”

This is, of course, not the first time labor issues at Foxconn, one of the largest electronic OEMs in the world and the main supplier of Apple’s iPhones, have been scrutinized. Most notably, conditions at its Longhua district factory in Shenzhen were blamed for a series of worker suicides in 2010. Serious fires have also broken out at several of its facilities, including one that resulted in three deaths at a factory that made iPad 2s.

TechCrunch has contacted Foxconn for comment.