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Chinese tech wades into metaverse as state media warnings signal possible crackdown

Uncertainties over Beijing’s metaverse policy pose outsized risk for Chinese tech firms

Users try out VR headsets at an industry expo in China. 

Users try out VR headsets at an industry expo in China.  (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Baidu are making forays into the booming metaverse ecosystem as state media warn of the dangers in this unregulated new cyber frontier.

Alibaba has now registered a new metaverse spinoff — Yuanjing Shengsheng — in Beijing, just two months after the conglomerate launched a cloud gaming brand with a similar name, according to the South China Morning Post. Meanwhile, Baidu announced last week that it is launching the “Land of Hope” (希壤) this month to host the first Chinese conference to be held in the metaverse, with a total capacity of 100,000 participants.

Baidu has also hyped its upcoming immersive tours of China’s Shaolin Temple and the Sanxingdui archeological site in Sichuan, per Technode. Baidu also looks to add online education and digital marketing to Land of Hope and harness its strength in AI as it builds the platform out into the future.

However, Chinese state mouthpiece the People’s Daily issued a fresh warning on the metaverse last week, dubbing virtual property sales “product financialization,” saying they carry risks of volatility, fraud, illegal fundraising, and even money laundering. It is the latest in a string of state media messaging that aims to cool what it calls the “current metaverse mania” as regulatory frameworks remain undecided.

China’s ban on all cryptocurrency and for-profit NFT (non-fungible token) transactions could kneecap the country’s development of the metaverse since the interoperable flow of digital assets is essential to creating an economically vibrant virtual space. These blanket bans may yet be revised, though, with Tencent’s president last month hinting Beijing might soften its approach going forward, per Jingdaily.

This may be wishful thinking on the gaming giant’s part though. Tencent, which has stakes in game developers Epic and Roblox and hundreds of millions of mobile game users, was exposed to the full brunt of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) recent crackdown on the industry.

If communist leaders’ recent moralizing on the social perils of PC gaming is anything to go by, then official attitudes toward the metaverse — sure to be more immersive than computer gaming — could be just as cold. A Bloomberg report suggests Beijing’s recent push for young people to go out and get into physical sports is a sign it will not tolerate Chinese minors getting hooked on the new cyber realm.

“There is a sense that internet culture and fan culture is kind of uncivilized, decadent, and distracting from what China needs to do,” a China cybersecurity expert at a Washington-based think tank told Bloomberg, and “gaming plays into that as well.”

Chinese tech companies will need to walk a fine line in pursuing the promise of the metaverse while keeping an ear to the ground for incoming regulatory crackdowns in the real world.

Updated : 2022-05-27 23:25 GMT+08:00