Chinese cities are piling into the metaverse

Visitors are pictured in front of an immersive art installation titled “Machine Hallucinations – Space: Metaverse” by media artist Refik Anadol, which will be converted…
Visitors are pictured in front of an immersive art installation titled “Machine Hallucinations – Space: Metaverse” by media artist Refik Anadol, which will be converted…
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No one knows what the metaverse is yet, but that hasn’t stopped global tech giants such as Facebook, which rebranded as Meta, Google, and Tencent from being caught up in the metaverse craze. Not to be left out, several Chinese cities are peppering their official economic plans with mentions of the concept.

There is no clear definition of what the metaverse actually is, but generally the idea is that it involves a three-dimensional experience of the internet that combines the real and the virtual worlds.

In December, Shanghai officials said at a key economic meeting that the city will guide corporations (link in Chinese) in studying the “important platform that contains the intersection between the virtual world and the real world,” seen widely as a reference to the metaverse. Days later, Shanghai officially mentioned the metaverse in its five-year plan for the tech industry, saying the concept should be applied in areas including public services, entertainment, and manufacturing.

Following Shanghai’s steps, the affluent Zhejiang province, home to e-commerce giant Alibaba, early this month said it will focus on (Chinese) future technologies ranging from the metaverse to advanced semiconductors.

Then this week, Chinese cities Anhui and Wuhan announced separately in their annual government work reports they too would work on developing the metaverse. The government of Hefei province, where Anhui is located, says it wants to cultivate a cluster of cutting-edge tech pioneers (Chinese) in areas such as the metaverse, according to Chinese publication 21 Caijing. Wuhan, meanwhile, says it will accelerate the integration of the online economy, including the metaverse, big data, cloud computing, and blockchain, with the real economy.

The cities’ quick embrace of the metaverse illustrates local Chinese authorities’ desire to signal to Beijing they’re up to date with emerging technologies. Blockchain, the underlying tech for cryptocurrency, for example, was mentioned by around 20 Chinese provinces and cities (Chinese) in their work reviews last year.

China’s rush to the metaverse

Although the local governments have yet to release timelines and specific plans for developing the metaverse, the growing mentions of it in official reports are a reflection of China’s surging interest in the area, which Beijing sees as the next crucial frontier it needs to develop and dominate.

In November, China established its first industry metaverse association, which is under the state-supervised China Mobile Communications Association (CMCA). Chinese tech giants including Tencent and Baidu have either indicated their capacity to develop the metaverse, or rushed to register trademarks related to it. The term is also among China’s top memes last year, according to a state-backed language research center.

Meanwhile China’s retail investors are also trying to figure out how to trade or invest in the metaverse, with some buying virtual homes in the form of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, at a time when China is trying to curb financial risk in the real-world real estate sector.

Amid the surging passion towards the metaverse, state publication the Economics Daily last week issued a warning about the hype surrounding it. In an article published on Jan. 4, the outlet said it is a long way off (Chinese) for the concept to be industrialized, and that hyping it excessively will be like “overdrafting” its future.