This article was originally published in Dutch in 2020.
It has been 10 years since I arrived in China to help several NGOs in Xi’an as an international volunteer in the role of a marketing consultant. In my home country I was used to setting up marketing campaigns using a good mix of online advertising and social media. I could forget about such advertising in the fundraising campaigns for donations and volunteers; there simply wasn’t any budget. So, I quickly started to delve into the possibilities of social media and attracting followers for my employer. I soon ran into the problem that mainstream platforms like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, etc. were blocked in China a few years earlier, as part of the censorship mechanisms that we know as The Great Firewall.
This meant that our team would have to use Chinese social media. For one of our projects, we even ended up building two ‘architectures’, where we could reach potential foreign donors via email and common Western platforms. We built a Chinese website for China, with all the red tape that came with it, plus a mix of Chinese social media: the microblogs Sina Weibo, the now-defunct competitor Tencent Weibo, Facebook clone RenRen, video site Youku, the fairly unique cultural platform Douban, QQ Messenger and the associated social network QZone, search engine optimization for Baidu and the then recently launched mobile chat app WeChat.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t very impressed with those Chinese platforms. Most seemed like blatant copies of their western equivalents. In fact, RenRen was so similar to Facebook, it was as if someone had quickly run Zuckerberg’s site through Google Translate and replaced the logo. Although ‘inspired’ by the Canadian chat app Kik, WeChat’s first version also closely resembled WhatsApp, which had been launched in America not long before and became popular in the west during my stay in China. Later, WeChat would adopt the idea of Talkbox, an app from Hong Kong that let users send each other voice messages. That was in fact much more convenient than entering Chinese characters into a smartphone. All in all, not much to write home about.
In 2012, things quickly began to change. I saw how microblog Sina Weibo developed new functionality that gave users much more options to share multimedia content instead of just 140-character messages. Incidentally, it must be said that 140 Chinese characters already contain a whole story; a Chinese character is not a letter, but a (partial) word. As such, Chinese were much less limited in sharing content on microblogs.
WeChat also started adding new functionality at a rapid pace. For example, it opened official accounts that could be used by bloggers, but which quickly became a popular means among brands to communicate with their followers. QR codes that made it easy to follow such an official account appeared everywhere in everyday life. In 2012, I wrote my first article on WeChat for a Dutch website called CustomerTalk.
I returned to the Netherlands in 2013 but was so fascinated by the rapid innovation in WeChat and other apps that I continued to follow its developments closely and write about it. In 2014 it became clear that WeChat was a real game changer. It integrated mobile payment into the app, entered into strategic partnerships with various Chinese start-ups such as taxi app Didi and gave them a prominent place in its mobile wallet. Developments went so fast that it was hard to keep up with the number of new functionalities in the years that followed. WeChat grew into a super app with its own ecosystem.
Fierce competition with Alibaba eventually resulted in the expansion of functionality in the payment app Alipay. Thereby a second super app and ecosystem started to form and Meituan Dianping – originally two apps for group buying and restaurant reviews – has added so much functionality in recent years that you could consider it a third super app.
I consider myself lucky to have witnessed the beginning of this wave of digital innovation and, as a user of WeChat and other apps, having been able to try out all these novelties myself every time I visit China. The speed of innovation contrasted sharply with the situation in the west. After being absent for more than two years, WhatsApp and coloured trousers were actually the only new things I found when I returned to The Netherlands after two years.
Back home I started giving lectures on social media in China and WeChat in particular. Interest was limited to industry associations, trade events with China, and students dealing with China. In 2015, SMC050 was the first to let me tell my story to a wider audience (watch a Dutch video of the event here). People turned out to be fascinated, but mainly seemed to think: ‘Things go really fast there, but it doesn’t really impact me’. No one was going to use WeChat. And frankly, there was no reason for them to use it. I was convinced (Dutch article) that WeChat would not be successful in the west. After all, the functionalities that gave the app such added value were not available outside China. In 2016 I did see (Dutch article) opportunities for western apps to grow into the WeChat of the west. However, my expectations have still not come true.
Although a western WeChat clone has never appeared, in recent years I have seen functionality appearing in Western apps and platforms that have been used in China for a long time. A new movement has emerged, whereby the west has started to copy from China. Most people will not realize this because they are not sufficiently aware of what is happening in China and they will consider it to be a cool new feature on SnapChat, Instagram or Facebook. China watchers know better. The blatant copying that Silicon Valley has always (justly) accused China of is something they are now guilty of themselves. Or to put it more positively: Silicon Valley finally dares to learn from China. I’ve put together the video below to give you an idea of what the west has learned from China (if you want you can skip ahead to 9 minutes for the examples):
Like the lectures and presentations I have given over the years, I hope this article creates some awareness about digital innovation in China. A substantial number of creative ideas now come from the East. Or you could say Western ideas are improved and further developed there, in a highly competitive society, where innovation in the private sector is a precondition for survival.
Facebook’s David Morcus already realized in 2015 that messaging apps were the future. It is therefore not surprising he has started to lead the faltering Libra project, Facebook’s digital payment system. After being completely cloned by RenRen itself in 2009, Facebook in particular is going to copy more and more Chinese ideas, as I predicted a few years ago. But the pace at which it happens is painfully slow by Chinese standards. This is probably partly due to the fact that an app like WeChat mainly serves one market, while Facebook has to consider all kinds of regulations in international markets for functionality such as payments. And we haven’t even mentioned privacy legislation. What’s more, In China digital technology is developed and rolled out in a different way. Testing a new product in China is often done by customers in everyday life. Because of the required speed in a playing field full of competitors, a ‘minimal viable product’ is often quickly introduced, and the teething problems are removed later. In the west, testing is primarily done by developers before functionality is rolled out at all, partly because consumers here have much higher expectations of novelties.
And it is not just WeChat that is heavily copied by Facebook. During the House of Representatives hearing at the end of July 2020, Zuckerberg was questioned about Facebook’s copying behaviour. “We’ve certainly adopted features that others have led in,” he admitted. The video above shows how Facebook introduced the short video app Lasso out of concern for the growing popularity of TikTok. The app flopped and Zuckerberg tried again with Reels, a short video app integrated into Instagram.
All in all, plenty of evidence that a lot of innovation now comes from the east and is being copied by the west. Just as the east continues to copy (and improve) innovations from the west. For example, TikTok and the Chinese Douyin were originally inspired by Western apps. It is therefore worth keeping an eye on what is happening in China in this area. You may not have dealings with China in everyday life. You may never use a Chinese app. Most Chinese apps are not even very suitable for the international market, and we have seen the challenges that an app like TikTok encountered when localizing for international markets. But a look eastwards does offer you an occasional glimpse into the potential future of your own digital environment or can inspire you to new ideas. And who wouldn’t like a look into a future so you can better anticipate what’s coming?