The Chinese apps challenging Silicon Valley

Vital statistics: TikTok is available in 155 countries in 75 languages and has 690 million users. © Getty

Should we welcome the “Chinafication” of social media? After years of following the West’s lead, Chinese companies are starting to make the running with the creation of revolutionary apps.

“Boycott China!” read one banner. “Delete Chinese apps!” shouted another. The protesters marching through New Delhi in June were furious about the neighbouring country’s incursions into Indian territory. By way of retaliation, they wanted action against its tech companies. The government agreed, banning 59 Chinese apps – including TikTok.

India was not alone: in the US, President Trump also moved against TikTok.

But in their resistance to Chinese tech, these leaders are beginning to look like King Canute. Today the biggest innovations in social media are coming from Beijing and Shanghai rather than Silicone Valley.

Here are four of the main changes:

1 Superapps While Westerners tend to favour a different app for every activity, Chinese users like having several rolled into one. On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, users can buy products as well as watch videos. On WeChat users can pay for shopping, order food or book a taxi – as well as keep up with friends.

2 Better filtering Facebook and Twitter recommend posts for you based on what your friends are posting and sharing on your news feed. TikTok sees users more as individuals, and makes recommendations based on videos you have already watched.

3 Anyone can become a star On YouTube, people have become celebrities by building up a large fanbase of loyal followers. But Chinese algorithms make this unnecessary by picking out and promoting videos by users who are completely unknown.

4 Enhanced moderation Companies such as TikTok have become much quicker at removing disturbing content than their Western rivals. In the first half of this year TikTok removed 104 million videos – the vast majority of them before anyone had complained about or even seen them.

All these features are beginning to spread across the world.

In the past, says university lecturer Elaine Jing Zhao, Chinese companies were preoccupied with creating their own versions of Western products. Today, though, “You see the narrative shift towards how Western social media platforms are learning from Chinese [ones]”.

The shift can be seen in the way online videos and shopping have been added to Facebook, and Instagram Reels have been introduced to compete with TikTok.

Chinese companies are keen to expand because, although their home market is enormous, it is almost saturated. But because of the suspicion surrounding Chinese products, says one expert, “They really want to transmit this impression to the public that they’re not necessarily Chinese – they’re just like others, a global platform.”

Whether that suspicion can be overcome remains to be seen. Installing superapps means handing over more data, and Westerners are generally less happy to do that. “Younger users will accept it quicker than the older generations, who are a little bit wary,” says Fabian Ouwehand, a Dutch social-media expert. “They value convenience over privacy.”

Should we welcome the “Chinafication” of social media?

Go east, young man!

Many say, yes: these innovations are exciting and generally beneficial. Technical advances should not be a one-way street – as Elaine Jing Zhao says: “Doing business is always about drawing inspiration from each other.”

Others argue that the drawbacks are worrying. There are already concerns about how Western tech firms use our data, and in China the government uses it to track people and sometimes to control their daily lives. Trump, for example, cracked down on TikTok because it was suspected of collecting information for Beijing.

You Decide

  1. If you had the resources to invent any app for the benefit of all mankind, what would it be?
  2. Should governments have the right to ban apps?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have invented an app that does your schoolwork for you. Think of a name and design a logo for it.
  2. Write a story about a multi-purpose app which goes haywire and causes chaos in its owner’s life.

Some People Say...

“Progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.”

Robert A. Heinlein (1907 - 1988), American author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Chinese are world leaders in online censorship: experts talk about “The Great Firewall of China”. One reason local apps are so successful is that Google has been blocked in the country since 2006, and Facebook since 2009. If you try to search for information on the Tiananmen Square massacre or a prominent dissident, nothing comes up.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what will happen to TikTok in the US once Joe Biden becomes president. Donald Trump ruled that it would be banned unless its Chinese owners sold it to an American company, and the deadline for that is fast approaching. The Chinese believe Biden to be less aggressive, and have welcomed his election. But Biden has described TikTok, which has 100 million users in the US, as “a matter of genuine concern”, and may well stick with Trump’s policy.

Word Watch

New Delhi
The capital of India. In 1911 the country’s British rulers decided to move the capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata). The new city was built beside Old Delhi, which had been the capital of the Mughal Empire.
Incursions
A clash in the Galwan Valley left 20 Indian soldiers dead. It was the first time that tensions on the countries’ shared border had resulted in fatalities since 1975. Each side accuses the other of provocation.
King Canute
An 11th Century ruler of England, Norway and Denmark associated with hopeless causes, since he is reputed to have sat on the sea shore and commanded the tide not to come in. In the original story, however, he did this to show that human power was nothing compared to God’s.
Beijing
Formerly known as Peking, it is the world’s most heavily populated capital city, with more than 21 million residents.
Shanghai
A city viewed as China’s most vibrant centre of international commerce. It is situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and is the world’s busiest container port.
Silicone Valley
An area of California where many of the world’s most successful tech companies are based. It was given its nickname in 1971 because of the silicon used in computer chips.
Saturated
Left with no room for anything else. The word comes from the Latin for “full”, and is often used to mean soaked with liquid.

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