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If you had asked me several months ago how I felt about the prospects for the Fortune Global Tech Forum, which begins Thursday morning (China time) in the megalopolis of Guangzhou, up the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong, I would have told you I was quite concerned.
The talk then was of de-coupling: a separation of the U.S. and Chinese economies to match the already decoupled Western and Chinese versions of the Internet. Tensions were real. The chief financial officer of Huawei had been arrested on charges that sounded like an uncomfortable mix of trade, commercial, and national-security issues. Tariffs were escalating. Corporate sales in both directions were hurting. Hong Kong was boiling. Neither the government headed by China’s Xi Jinping nor the U.S.’s Donald Trump showed any sign of backing down.
Investors and businesspeople generally turned their noses up at all this. Tariffs are bad for international commerce. And while American gripes against China on issues like intellectual property theft, state subsidies of industry, and access to the Chinese market are legitimate, what businesspeople really like about the U.S.-China relationship is that it makes money.
And now it all looks far closer to business as usual than I could have expected. Yes, the Huawei situation is unresolved. (Its Australian-born chief technology officer for its carrier group, Paul Scanlan, will speak in Guangzhou.) And the situation in Hong Kong is even worse. (We’ll host a panel on what the Chinese call the Greater Bay Area, of which Hong Kong most certainly is a part.) At the same time, trade tensions seem to be rapidly de-escalating, albeit with little to show for it that likely couldn’t have been achieved with quieter diplomacy.
The question I’ll have on my mind in Guangzhou is if the events of 2019 have bred lasting mistrust between Western and Chinese businesspeople, or if the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and eagerness to learn from each will prevail. The conference will explore all the meaty topics: the future of 5G technology, how cloud computing is evolving, the next stage of digital retail, and what big data means in an age of surveillance. The conference promises a lighter approach too: We’ll host a panel exploring East-West relations through the prism of the HBO show Silicon Valley.
Watch Fortune.com for complete coverage of the Fortune Global Tech Forum. And, if the time zone suits you, the entire event will be livestreamed.
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This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.