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Internet in China: Why is the Social Media Landscape So Different in China?

We recently published our Ultimate Guide to China Social Media Marketing 2022. As the name suggests, this is the guide to read if social media marketing in China is on your radar.

This is the first post in a long series of breaking down each chapter and/or section within the guide. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s the link to the full guide!

You probably know that you can’t access networks like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and many more in China. In this post, we’re tracing back to how the internet in China became what it is today!

  • When and how did internet become a thing in China?
  • Who were the first internet users in China?
  • Why is the social media landscape so different in China?
  • What does it all mean for your marketing strategy?

Internet in China – The Present

As of June 2021, China had more than 1 billion people online. It’s a lot. 21 million of these netizens joined the internet just over the course of last 6 months!

The pandemic gave the Chinese internet penetration rate a boost. This growth is mainly coming from lower tier cities and rural areas in China, where digital solutions have made lives of many more convenient.

With the internet penetration still at 71.6%, there’s still more room for growth. To compare, the internet penetration in EU-27 is about 91%.

What is a netizen?

Reading about the internet in China, you will often encounter the word netizen or wangmin.

It’s a mix of the words “internet” and “citizen”. The word describes people who are actively involved in online communities and, the Internet, in general.

In China, wangmin (网民) literally means ‘net-citizen’ and is a generally accepted term to talk about internet users in China. In 2013, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) defined the term as “Chinese residents who are six or older, and have used the Internet at least once in the past six months”.

What are Chinese Doing Online?

What Chinese Netizens are doing online....
99% instant messaging
94% watching videos
88% browsing short videos
86% making digital payments
79% shopping
75% reading news
67% streaming music
62% watching livestreams
42% ordering food
37% hailing cars

The Incredible Growth of the Internet in China

The web took quickly off in the West, but didn’t quite catch on in China until 1994. The growing number of public Internet Cafes or 网吧 wangba across big cities played a major role in extending the Internet’s reach in China. The Internet cafes became the bridge to the world for many young Chinese. And with first Internet users, local tech companies such as Sina, Sohu and NetEase opened for business…

In the early days, China’s internet was playing catch up. Now, its tech sector is leading the world with innovations that are distinctly Chinese.

how social media in china came to be

The Evolution of Social Media in China

We looked at the growth of Internet in China. What about the unique social media ecosystem? Why is the Chinese social media landscape so drastically different from the rest of the world?

Again, we will find answers from looking into the past.

social media in china

eBayThe brand entered China in 2002 but struggled to adapt to the local market. Alibaba’s launch of Taobao in 2003 proved to a tough competitor. Taobao understood the market conditions much better. eBay China was run by a number of expatriates from Germany, Korea, Taiwan and the United States to run the China division. The general manager of eBay China’s operations was German, while the CTO was American. Neither of them spoke Chinese. After a few challenging years, eBay lost out to Taobao and left the market in 2006.

Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg has been courting China for a long time: running through smog in Beijing and even learning Mandarin. However, Facebook has failed to reenter the Chinese market since getting blocked in 2009.

YouTube – YouTube is blocked as of March 2009 in order “to prevent the spread of harmful information”.

Twitter – Despite being blocked since June 2009, Twitter reportedly has 10M
users in China. Interestingly, many Chinese government institutions have official government accounts on Twitter.

Google – While the government blocked other apps, Google decided to exit China in January of 2010. In 2021 Google still employs over 1000 people in China. Many of them are targeting Chinese companies to help them advertise their businesses overseas.

Instagram – Instagram was freely available in China until 2014. It managed to find moderate success among Chinese youth.

Uber – Uber launched in China in 2014. 2 years later, Uber sold its China business to the local rival DiDi. Uber’s 15% stake in Didi is estimated to now be worth $8 bn.

Between 2016 to 2018, the remaining Western social platforms – Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest, Quora – gradually became inaccessible.

Amazon – Amazon struggled to keep up with the pace of innovation in China and left the market in 2019.

LinkedIn – The latest in a long line to throw in the towel. LinkedIn remained available in China by carefully complying with the local laws… until it announced its departure in late 2021.

Yahoo – Less than a month after LinkedIn, Yahoo also announced its departure, citing similar challenges.

Social Media Tech Bans Haven’t Been One-Sided…

For years, China was known as a challenging market for foreign social media platforms. More recently, these roles have reversed, with Chinese social media apps facing turbulent times overseas…

WeChat – With 1.5M users in the US alone, WeChat is also popular outside of China. Trump’s threat to ban the social messaging app in the US never materialized. However, WeChat was forced out of India in 2020.

TikTok – TikTok is owned by ByteDance – the same company that owns Douyin. It’s the first Chinese app to really take off outside of China, putting it under severe scrutiny. In June 2020 India banned TikTok. In addition, India also banned nearly 60 other Chinese apps. In 2019 the Trump administration called it “a national security threat” and proposed to ban it in July 2020. Joe Biden later rescinded this order.

Social Media in China – Takeaways

Compared to the rest of the world, China joined the internet relatively late. However, it’s caught up – in a completely unique way. China now has more than 1 billion internet users, with still more room for growth.

Chinese netizens are advanced internet-users, with a large portion of them using online services to stay in touch with the world or simplify their lives. A whopping 79% of Chinese internet users are active online shoppers.

Social media in China evolved into what it is today gradually. From early to mid-2010’s, Western platforms were available in China in one form or another. As various regulations and bans banished most of them from China, local platforms took over.

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Want to read the full Ultimate Guide to China Social Media Marketing in 2022?

Find it here!

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