China is a world unto itself. It has historically enjoyed a great degree of isolation, from which it never fully recovered, even after Deng Xiaoping’s policies opened the country up economically. To this day, despite being a direct contributor to globalization, it remains distinctly independent. This can be clearly seen online. Today, we’re going to talk about the evolution of social networks, new media and the influencer market behind the Great Firewall.
A short history of the Chinese internet
The World Wide Web first came to China in 1989. Back then it was mostly used in academia, until the country officially went online five years later. Due to high costs of personal computers and broadband, home internet remained a luxury at first. Instead, people visited internet cafes, where they could access it for 25 CNY/hour.
In the late 90s, Chinese internet as we know it began to take shape. Companies such as Tencent and Alibaba, now both multi-billion-dollar entities, first opened their doors. But while these startups were trying to establish themselves, the government was working on a more important project, one that would come to define Chinese internet as a whole. In 1998, it proposed creating a digital censorship infrastructure, now commonly known as ‘the Great Firewall of China’.
Websites that voiced dissident opinions were among the first to be blocked. This meant no access to foreign media, such as the New York Times and the like. Moreover, when Western social networks began conquering the Chinese market, they had a choice: either to comply with local regulations or leave. And most couldn’t handle the pressure.
Google tried cooperating at first, but by 2006 was forced to cease major operations within the country. At this moment, Google China can only be accessed in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, not subject to Mainland censorship laws. Facebook met a similar fate: during the 2009 Urumqi riots, Xinjiang independence supporters were using it to organize. The website was blocked as a result. Since then, most western social networks have been unavailable in China. There are ways to access them by circumventing the Chinese Firewall, but most people simply won’t bother with it. So, what do local citizens use in their stead?
Homegrown social media: an overview
Tencent’s first product was QQ — once the most popular messaging service in the country. It was fundamental in shaping the Chinese approach to user experience. Just like ICQ, it had no usernames — only IDs. And it was expanding in functionality as time went by. Westerners would find a service with a thousand functions confusing, but the locals have grown to like having everything in one place.
Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter clone, came to prominence after the original microblogging service was banned. To this day, it remains the proverbial public square of the local internet, crucial for the development of the Chinese online culture.
Next are Youku and Bilibili, major Chinese video hosting platforms. The former was modelled after YouTube, while the latter has many similarities with the Japanese nerd-oriented website Nico Nico Douga. With the availability of full movies and TV shows, both services are also seen as replacements for Netflix. But the most important social network in mainland China is, without a doubt, WeChat.
It was first released in 2011 and has since become ubiquitous. Just like Facebook, it’s meant to be a sort of address book for everyone you’ve ever met — not just your friends. But, just like QQ, it’s so much more. It allows for 1-on-1 conversations, as well as group chats, and has a feed with posts from the people on your contact list. You can tether it to your bank account, transfer funds, pay for services, or have others pay you. You can even use WeChat to order train tickets and book hotels.
It is worth noting that the privacy concerns that would arise if such a mega-app existed in the West do not apply here. The government is already monitoring everything that’s being said on the local Web, so there’s no-one to hide it from.
However, there is one social network that has made it big outside of the country. It’s TikTok, locally known as Douyin, heavily inspired by a video sharing service called Musical.ly, which, in turn, was trying to become the Vine of China. The premise of it is simple — TikTok lets you share under-minute-long videos with separately recorded background music. The platform initially gained popularity for its videos of lip-syncing teenagers, but has since become home to content creators of all types and ages.
The social media landscape of China is really diverse, and a lot different from what we’re used to. But what about the local influencers? How are they different?
The Chinese influencer market
Depending on the source, the Chinese KOL (Key Opinion Leader, their term for ‘influencer’) market is valued at anywhere from 9-20 US$ Billion. This huge number has to do with how successful the shift to digital has been in the past 10 years.
Outside of the most remote villages, life in China revolves around smartphones. You can go from ordering food from the restaurant across the street, to arguing with the restaurant’s manager, to warning others about the unreliability of your once favourite restaurant, all within the same app. And it’s not just the young, successful people who ‘digitise’ their lives. The working-class street vendor that sells baozi during rush hour also uses WeChat to get things done. The integrated nature of WeChat creates no clear line between its social functions and its business functions. College students — the ‘nano-influencers’ of China — are using the platform to make some money on the side. Adults add Taobao sellers to their contact lists, just like they would add a friend. Seems like this environment was made for influencers to strive.
However, it’s important to note that a lot of topics to do with politics and social justice are considered taboo, so building your brand off of a political opinion is not an option for Chinese influencers. On the other hand, the government pays a number of KOLs to shape conversations in their favour. These people are called ‘the 50 cent party’ due to the belief that they’re paid half a yuan per comment. It is estimated that government-funded KOLs are responsible for up to 488 million posts per year.
Another key aspect of the Chinese KOL market is the importance of written communication. Our influencers were shaped by primarily visual media platforms, such as Instagram. That is not the case in China, where the language itself is more visually loaded, and the interfaces do not emphasize visual content to the same degree. To help brands navigate, companies set up KOL incubators. Think of them as influencer agencies on steroids: these people pick perspective KOLs, assess the candidates’ potential, and introduce them to brands that are looking for exposure.
Trends and predictions
Chinese KOLs hold an immense amount of power in their hands. But, at the same time, they have little to no influence on how their government-run internet is developing. So few things can be said for sure regarding their future. Right now, just like the West, China is seeing a rise in micro-influencers. Which means that bigger influencers are in a good position to switch things up, and some of them are even starting their own creative agencies. You can also note the visual under-saturation of Chinese social media platforms. The popularity of TikTok is a good indicator of it. And it would be logical to assume that these trends will continue into the year 2020.
Misha Sokolov is co-founder of MNFST