Data Sheet—Why Some of China’s Hottest Tech Companies Are Cooling Off

China’s second-largest e-commerce company, JD. com, plans deep job cuts to staunch losses and reassure investors, according to a slew of recent media reports, highlighting the mounting challenges faced by Chinese tech firms as their nation’s economy loses steam.

The Information, citing investors, reported Tuesday that NASDAQ-listed JD.com is preparing to lay off as many as 12,000 people, or roughly 8% of its 150,000 person workforce. Bloomberg and Quartz also report the company is planning cuts and has rescinded some job offers.

Reports of layoffs at JD.com follow announcements of similar retrenchment at other Chinese tech companies. Tencent Holding, China’s mammoth social media and online games provider, said last month it would sack or demote up to 10% of senior and middle management. In February, ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing said it would slash its workforce by 15%.

In some cases, cutbacks are a response to governance failures or clashes with regulators. In the case of Tencent, Beijing slapped a nine month ban on new video games licenses for the company; regulators said they were concerned about online addiction and deteriorating eyesight of the nation’s youth. Didi was chastened by the murder of two female passengers last year by Didi drivers.

JD’s woes partly reflect the misadventures of its founder and CEO Richard Liu. Liu radiated confidence when Adam interviewed him at Brainstorm Tech in Aspen last July. But on August 31, the boyish entrepreneur was arrested in Minneapolis on charges of raping a 21-year-old University of Minnesota student. In December, the Hennepin County prosector dropped the case citing insufficient evidence. Liu, who controls 80% of JD.com’s voting rights, says the relationship was consensual and denies wrongdoing. But details of the incident cast him in a nasty light, and he has since shunned public appearances.

The layoffs also underscore a harsher operating environment for Chinese tech firms, and have ignited a broad debate about working conditions in China’s tech industry. Until recently China’s tech workers took a kind of perverse pride in working long hours at a feverish pace; the famed moniker for Chinese tech work culture is “996,” reflecting the notion that, to succeed, you have to be willing to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. But, as Quartz notes, with more and more Chinese ventures jettisoning workers, once-prized positions at the nation’s tech companies are starting to look every bit as precarious as work in China’s factories.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

NEWSWORTHY

Learning the hard way. Layoffs aren’t just happening in China. Online education startup Udacity cut 75 people, or about 20% of its employees, TechCrunch reports.

Packing the shelves. The initial public offering boom of 2019 booms on. Next up, Uber is expected to file its registration statement seeking to raise $10 billion in fresh backing, which would make it one of the 10 largest IPOs of all time. Smaller startup PagerDuty, which helps companies maintain online sites, is going public on Thursday and could be valued at up to $1.7 billion.

Seeding the clouds. Third place is not a fun place to be, so Google is trying to beef up its corporate cloud effort under new boss Thomas Kurian. On Tuesday, Google announced a new service called Anthos to help customers run the same apps on cloud servers and internal servers. Kurian also plans a major expansion of his unit’s sales team. Elsewhere at the ‘Plex, Google shot down earlier rumors that it was abandoning development of new hardware, telling The Verge that updated laptops and tablets are coming soon. No further details were offered, however.

Amaze me. Rocket fans should get a treat later tonight when SpaceX launches its massive Falcon Heavy for the second time and then attempts to land the reusable boosters on land and sea. The launch is expected around 6:30 p.m. EDT and there’s a live webcast.

No vacation time. Will robots take the jobs people don’t want to do? That may be the case at Walmart, where some repetitive jobs like scanning shelves for inventory and mopping the floors may be taken over by what the company is calling “smart assistants.”

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Speaking of assigning robots to tough jobs, the agriculture industry is looking at ways to automate more tasks, too. the workforce of largely migrant workers willing and available to harvest hard-to-pick crops like strawberries and apples has been shrinking dramatically. In a long and detailed profile in The New Yorker, John Seabrook gets out into the fields and describes some of the efforts to build A.I.-powered robotic pickers. Like Berry 5.1:

Whereas human pickers, who need only a few seconds per bush, use most of that time working their hands through the leaves, each robot, which spends eight seconds per plant, devoted seven and a half of them just to hovering about a foot above the bush, motionless, as though contemplating it. Two stereoscopic cameras per robot, equipped with multi-spectrum and infrared vision that can see berries through the canopy, scanned the plant in a second and a half, and made a virtual 3-D map of it. (If the harvester has encountered the same plant before, it can add this data to what it has already learned about the plant, using a high-speed link to connect with the cloud.) The system then ran all the information through its algorithms and targeted those berries at peak ripeness, based on color, size, and the amount of time that the fruit had already spent on the plant.

It was only at the very end of the eight-second window that the Pitzer wheel dropped down and–in a blur of motion that recalled Doctor Octopus, the Spider-Man villain, attacking one of his victims–the claws grabbed and picked the ripe berries in a fraction of a second, pop-pop-pop, and deposited them, apparently unbruised, on a shelf at the top of the machine’s chassis.

BEFORE YOU GO

An interesting lesson in skill and talent from the world of professional basketball this week. Magic Johnson was one of the greatest players of all time on the court. But after two years trying to run the front office operation of the Los Angeles Lakers, and having to make all of the decisions about players and coaches, he’s resigning. Johnson is hardly the first NBA star to flop as a manager, but it seems the lesson needs to sink in with team owners. There are different skill sets required to play the game, to manage the players, and to assemble the team. “I want to go back to having fun,” Johnson said. Don’t we all.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.