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.
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.
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.