As the world’s two superpowers grow further apart, the internet environments in the US and China are becoming increasingly separate digital worlds. US internet companies have mostly flopped in China, and with notable exceptions, apps from China haven’t made it big outside of their home country.
Digital life in each country is largely shielded from the other, but the two online realms are not completely isolated. There is a cross-fertilization of digital ideas between the US and China, as well as threads of interdependence, showing that hard borders and political divisions are not absolute roadblocks to the internet that bring a broken world a little closer together.
The shreds of ties that still exist between the parallel digital realms of China and the US show both the failure of the idea that the internet can tear down nationalist walls, and that online innovations can slip past borders and censorship.
The division is certainly real. It’s hard to overstate how different the online experiences are for people in China and the US
The most popular websites and apps in the West — including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Spotify, LinkedIn and Uber — have been essentially banned by the Chinese government or have been dropped on their faces in the country.
Airbnb, the last remaining major US internet company in China, said this week it would close its six-year-old home rental service there. However, the company will continue to operate a business for Chinese tourists traveling abroad, my colleague Erin Griffith reported.
Airbnb’s decision was in fact an admission that the company, like Google, Amazon and Uber, has been outsmarted by Chinese competitors. Those US companies probably never had much of a chance in a country where the government tightly controls the internet and has made doing business difficult for many foreign (and recently Chinese) tech companies.
You can count on one hand the western tech companies that have done well in China. There’s Apple and…that’s it? You may also want to include companies like Microsoft that have had some success selling software or technical equipment to companies.
It is almost as uncommon for Chinese digital stars to progress in the US or many other major countries. TikTok, owned by the Chinese internet conglomerate ByteDance, is a notable exception. There’s also Didi, China’s on-demand ride titan, which has expanded to Latin America and other regions, though the Chinese government’s technical crackdown has hurt the company.
But the digital realms of the two global superpowers are not completely separate.
People in China don’t officially have access to Facebook or Google, but the companies sell billions of dollars in advertising to companies in China that want to reach Chinese citizens or Chinese-speaking people elsewhere in the world.
Brian Wieser, the global president of business intelligence for the advertising agency GroupM, says China-based companies will be responsible for about $10 billion of Facebook’s ad sales by 2021. That’s a lot of money for companies with no official users in China.
There would be no Amazon as we know it without the boom of merchants from China who have expanded the digital mall’s product selection, as I wrote in On Tech yesterday.
Trends and business ideas also move between the individual internets in China and the US. Remember when every new smartphone was smaller than the last? Then, larger screen smartphones became popular among Chinese consumers, contributing to the dominance of super-sized phones now everywhere. If you love your giant iPhone, you can partially thank the 2010 smartphone buyers in Beijing and Shanghai.
There have been other Chinese trends that have shaped Americans’ online experiences. American Internet companies have so far made unsuccessful but relentless attempts to imitate live Internet shopping-as-entertainment programs from China. And executives and investors’ hopes for food delivery services in the US and Europe stem, in part, from the ubiquity of food delivery services in China.
Copying also goes the other way. Didi started out as a dispatch app for conventional car services. But when Uber opened its doors in China in 2014, connecting people with non-professional drivers, it also affected the way Didi worked. Uber gave up China in 2016, but the company left its mark on China’s transportation.
Don’t get me wrong: the division far outweighs the fuzzy connections between the internet systems in China and the US. And it’s hard to imagine that changing. China and the US are growing further apart, both politically and online.
But I have some hope that China’s authoritarian internet controls and US-China hostilities can’t completely shield the two countries’ digital worlds.
Before we go…
More signs of fear and tech cuts: Lyft said it would slow hiring and cut budgets in some departments. Uber freezes hiring. Snap warned this week that ad sales were weaker than the company had anticipated. A prominent startup investor recently advised young companies to save money. Amazon is cutting back on warehouse space. This is all evidence that falling stock prices, volatile sales and uncertain economic conditions are deterring many tech companies.
His DIY phone repair went really bad. My colleague Brian X. Chen broke his iPhone while trying to use Apple’s new instructions and tools designed to help people and independent repair shops fix their gadgets. Brian concluded that Apple’s repair program had some benefits, but that it “was making the customer fail,” as one technician told him.
It’s an anachronism, but a beautiful one: Bloomberg CityLab wrote about vending machines at Bay Area stations that distribute printed short stories for people to read and pass on. Why not display a QR code or any other digital doodad? “It wouldn’t be the same!” wrote the publication.
Hug for this
The view from the remote workplace of a person in a coffee shop: A duck (apparently with shoes on) walked onto the sidewalk seating area† Someone brought the duck a drink of water.
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