Facebook vs. China: The Struggle Continues

As an adolescent, one of the most annoying parts of visiting my extended family in Shanghai was the fact that I would be digitally disconnected from virtually everyone I knew for roughly three to four weeks at a time. It’s well known that the Great Firewall of China has blocked most popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and even Gmail. This created an annoyance for teenage me – and would still do so today – since, like most people my age, I was addicted to the social platforms I used and couldn’t bear to go a day, let alone a few weeks, without spending hours scrolling through my Instagram feed.

There are ways around the bans, obviously. Dozens of VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, will connect your computer to a remote server and allow you to access websites that have been restricted. I’ve done this quite a few times, and it always works to an extent. But even with proxies and other methods of bypassing Chinese cyber security, you can’t deny that it’s a nuisance to have to use alternative methods just so that you can comment on someone’s profile picture.

The reason that so many popular social media sites have been prohibited by Chinese government officials is political. Technically, the government still rules as a communist entity (although in practice, most things have become increasingly in line with free market capitalist ideals). But complete freedom of speech is not allowed – and the threat of conflicting ideologies, public criticism of the ruling party, and civil dissent are still enough to persuade the Chinese to remain extremely cautious in the age of technology and social media.

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A screenshot from the WeChat app

Chinese people don’t seem too upset that they’re excluded from using platforms like Facebook. They’ve adapted to their own social network – WeChat, which was launched by Tencent, the Chinese Internet behemoth, in 2011. Today WeChat has over 800 million active users, with more than 70 million outside of China. The platform has everything that Facebook has – messaging groups, a payment option, and the ability to post and edit photos and videos. To be honest, I’ve never used it and thus am unfamiliar with all of its offerings. But my mom, a religious WeChatter, loves it and claims it’s even better than Facebook.

It’s really a strange phenomenon that many of America’s tech giants can’t seem to penetrate the huge Chinese market. It extends beyond just social media, which has traditionally been targeted with government censorship. Regardless of what services they provide, American tech companies just can’t catch a break when it comes to China.

To illustrate, Uber recently sold its Chinese operations to Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-sharing service and Uber’s largest rival in the country, after failing to gain traction despite pouring billions of dollars into the investment. Similarly, Amazon has never caught on in China – the Chinese use Taobao, the most popular shopping site owned by Alibaba, to buy virtually anything they could want, for extremely affordable prices. The only major tech company to find success in China has been Apple. But Apple offers a physical product rather than a service, which differentiates it from most of the other firms that have tried and failed to capture the loyalty of the Chinese customer.

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The Didi Chuxing app, used by millions in China

Tech companies who have been humbled in China face many challenges – for one, home grown companies have an advantage against foreign entities naturally, as they are more familiar with their target audience and can better adapt their services to attract those consumers. Furthermore, a number of Chinese regulations make it difficult for American companies to easily operate in the country. Such barriers have proven to be too much for many firms, and most have had to retreat or rethink their strategies.

In the face of all their challenges, tech companies continue to fight on. Mark Zuckerberg has ventured on several trips to China within the past few years, in various attempts to court top officials to allow Facebook access to China’s millions of Internet users. He’s trying so hard, he even learned to speak Mandarin. But despite his diplomatic efforts, Facebook is still blocked in China, and there is no sign that Chinese officials will give in anytime soon.

It can’t be denied – China is a huge and potentially extremely profitable market, full of young people who are well aware of the advantages of technology and the increasing ways that social media impacts their personal lives. For 2016, it is estimated that the number of Chinese smartphone users will surpass 560 million people. With a figure like that, it’s no wonder tech executives aren’t giving up.

But when will they succeed? And more importantly, how? In any case, I hope that the next time I visit my aunt in Shanghai, I won’t have to defy the Chinese government in order to send someone a Snapchat of my meal.

 

8 comments

  1. skuchma215 · ·

    This was a very interesting read! I interned with a student from outside of Shanghai over the summer who talked about WeChat quite a lot. He said some of the features were a lot easier to use than Facebook, such as the messaging app and the photo editor. The biggest downside he told me about was the fact that it simply wasn’t used in the US. He felt like his Chinese friends and UVA/America friends were kept in separate online spheres. And as much as we complain about the newsfeed on Facebook, he said at least our government doesn’t sensor what news we see.

    I’d be curious to hear how in your experience services like Didi Chuxing and Taobao compare to Uber and Amazon. It seems like these companies are forming to mirror services that are offered in the US. Additionally, do you think American digital service companies aren’t gaining traction in China because of government policy, or simply because people in China prefer Chinese based digital services?

  2. cattybradley · ·

    Great post – I know I often forget how borders can still impact how people interact online. The development of technology over the past decades has made the world so much smaller – people in all corners of the world can work together remotely or catch up over FaceTime. Yet, as you point out with China’s policies, government regulation can still trump the dominance of social media and other tech companies.

  3. Your post reminds me of the exact same struggle I faced a couple of days ago when I tried to FaceTime my best friend who’s studying abroad in Beijing. I remember spending 20 minutes failing to connect because of video delays with FaceTime and distorted audio with KakaoTalk until we finally got lucky with Skype. My friend mentioned WeChat as an option and how that’s the only way she connects with her peers in China on her mobile phone; however, for me, it just didn’t make sense why I would have to download this specific app when I had readily access to FB and Google Chat here in the U.S. It’s funny how big western technology companies have managed to integrate their social media platforms in countries all over the world, but like we’ve learned about Eurocentrism in Asia centuries ago, China has and still remains a strong opponent to westernized instruments in favor of its own homemade goods/services. This issue is more than just political; it’s also very culture-based where there’s a strong sense of pride in Chinese nationals to create their own competitive brand within the social media realm.

  4. I do confess that I’m fascinated by the Chinese social media infrastructure. The government has done an effective job of not only blocking western platforms but also providing an alternative for citizens to use. They did allow the use of Facebook in Shanghai a few year ago. Do you have any idea how that’s going?

  5. I this this was a great read. Often times, we take all the technology and social media we have in the United States for granted. Through Tech Trek West (I happened to research Uber), I learned that Uber’s largest investment in China was to be more local – Uber’s model worked so successfully in the United States because they were able to personalize the experience for people in that specific demographic. However, in China that was always an uphill battle as they had very little local expertise. On a related note, Ola in India has 70% of the market, and Uber is doing its best to fight them off there. I think these “niche” companies are able to understand their market so much better than foreign companies, which is allowing them to all grow at a much faster rate. Thanks so much for sharing!

  6. I might be a little biased here, but I have the exact same sentiments about social media when I return back to Shanghai (ExpressVPN is the fastest and most reliable to get around the pesky Great Firewall of China). However, I don’t see western technology or social media companies penetrating the Chinese markets anytime soon. Many of the Chinese social media and internet platforms gain a first mover advantage and a better understanding of the cultural and social norms, leading to quicker and more effective adaptations. WeChat is the first example of this, as it incorporated “voice texts” in the early stages of release. Phone calls were astronomically more expensive than sending a text message but typing pinyin (non-character version of Chinese) took a lot longer than people wanted it to. With the addition of “voice texts”, people could send cheap “texts” without having to take a long time to type them out (this also explains the internationals speaking one sentence in their phone during a quiet elevator ride in Maloney).

    Companies like Google and Amazon have been replaced by Baidu and Alibaba’s domestic shipping. The first mover advantage is apparent even in other countries like Japan. In Japan, Yahoo is equivalent to eBay in the United States due to first mover advantage. In comparison to the United States, no one has even heard of buying or selling on Yahoo.

    The grass is greener on the other side due to such a huge untapped market on the rise, but I don’t foresee any internet or social media companies making it over the great wall due to the political elements involved and the lack of first mover advantage.

  7. Great post! I really like this blog becasue it is very relatable for me. I am a Chinese language minor; therefore, I studied abroad in Beijing in order to improve my Chinese speaking skills. Although BC provided me with a VPN, in order for me to able to connect to America social sites, Google and gmail; the speed was ridiculously slow. I was going insane. Therefore, I decided to give the Chinese platform WeChat a chance. Honestly, it was an incredibly tool during my time in China. It has messaging options, Facebook, payment, scanners, videos, ect…It is basically every social media platform in the USA combined into one. Since the Chinese government is so determined to keep out Facebook, insta, snap, ext…they created WeChat and have been widely successful. Although I am back in the USA, I continue to use WeChat to communicate with my friends in China. It is the best way. The Chinese government’s strategy to pushback these social media platforms was brilliant, they made it so that there was no desire for them. WeChat has it all.

  8. This post is really interesting and I think you have a unique perspective on the topic. I knew there were strict regulations around these platforms but had no idea that “WeChat” existed as an alternative. It’s crazy to think that these companies are missing out on such a big market. I wonder if Facebook would even be able to handle that big of user capacity (assuming all 800 million WeChat users also signed up for Facebook).

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