Technology With Chinese Characteristics

A conversation with Lillian Li about how and why tech entrepreneurship is different in China, and what lessons we can draw from it


Today’s episode of Building Bridges is my conversation with Lillian Li, a former venture capitalist in Europe who now writes the highly successful newsletter Chinese Characteristics.

I’m not really sure how our paths initially crossed, but I discovered Lillian’s work about technology in China in the course of last year—first on Twitter, and then through the insightful and enlightening essays on Chinese tech companies published on her acclaimed newsletter Chinese Characteristics.

  • I had all the reasons to dive in. I think China is a critical area on the global map, one that none of us can afford to ignore. And I think that tech entrepreneurship is one of the things that make China matter even more. On the other hand, we Westerners have to be humble when it comes to China: it’s a very large and diverse country, with a culture that’s very different from ours, and where people speak a language that’s extremely difficult for most of us to master.

Needless to say I had to have Lillian on the podcast: as someone who grew up and worked in Europe, she can relate to the kinds of questions we’re facing on this side of the world; but as a native of China who went back there last year, she has the unique ability to share the details and nuances that elude most of us who are seeking to understand how China is positioning in the Entrepreneurial Age.

Here are the topics Lillian and I covered in our 45-min. conversation:

  • Why she decided to go back to China, how life in China compares to that in the UK in the context of the pandemic, and her assessment of China’s economic prospects.

  • What makes tech entrepreneurship in China different from that in the US or Europe, and what European entrepreneurs can learn from their Chinese counterparts.

  • Why Westerners should focus less on powerful Chinese individuals and more on systems and institutions if they really want to understand what’s happening in China.

  • What really happened in the runup to Ant Financial’s interrupted IPO and her explanation of the setbacks encountered by Jack Ma following the fateful speech he made in October 2020.

  • The sources she recommends for all who want to learn more, including Rui Ma’s podcast Tech Buzz China and the book China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur R. Kroeber.

This podcast and the related article were originally published at Chinese Tech w/ Lillian Li. Founder Control w/ Bill Janeway. Daniel Ek, Arsenal & the Super League as part of my newsletter European Straits (about the Entrepreneurial Age, viewed from Europe).


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  • Also Building Bridges is part of a network of Substack newsletters, which you may want to discover: there’s Laetitia Vitaud’s Laetitia@Work (about the future of work, with a feminist perspective), and my own European Straits (about the Entrepreneurial Age, viewed from Europe).

(Credit: Franz Liszt, Angelus ! Prière Aux Anges Gardiens—extrait du disque Miroirs de Jonas Vitaud, NoMadMusic.)