Caixin
Sep 18, 2019 10:00 AM
TECH TALK

Despite Years of Effort, China’s Internet Club Still in Search of Global Success

A couple of headlines over the past week have cast a spotlight on the global aspirations of China’s internet companies, with new developments from online travel leader Ctrip and e-commerce giant JD.com. The former may soon undergo a name change to better reflect its global aspirations, while the latter has announced the launch of a new joint venture in Thailand.

I’ll detail both developments shortly, and also offer some views on who among the China internet crowd has had the most successful go-abroad strategy. But before that I should start by noting the extreme difficulty of going abroad for internet companies, not just from China but in general. Despite a handful of notable success stories like Google, Amazon and Facebook, the vast majority of internet companies remain largely confined to their home markets.

China has the potential to be different due to the market’s sheer size, with the world’s largest internet base of more than 800 million users. That provides a huge breeding ground for the development of new apps with unique and interesting features that might appeal to other markets. It’s no accident that many of the most successful global internet companies to date have come from the U.S., in no small part due to the huge size of the American market.

All that said, China’s internet companies have a particularly abysmal record in going abroad despite repeated efforts. I’ll detail some of the many flops we’ve seen over the years, and then also look at a few of the most recent ones that could be showing early signs of success.

The bottom line is that every market is slightly different and it’s hard to make a one-size-fits-all product for everyone. A sub-chapter to the lack of Chinese global success stories is that the nation’s own internet market is highly protected, leading to the creation of what I’ve previously called a generation of internet “mutants.”

Such companies may do well in the nation’s very specific online environment, which requires a high degree of self-policing for sensitive content and has relatively low regard for intellectual property protection. When it comes to doing business outside where more global norms apply, companies that thrived in such an environment often find they have little to no competitive advantage, and may even be shunned due to suspicions stemming from their Chinese origins.

I won’t spend too much time on all the failures that have come in the past, but do want to highlight a few to show how difficult things can be and provide links for further reading. All three of China’s early leading trio of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are no strangers to such failures.

Baidu has made plays at Japan and a few emerging markets like Brazil and Egypt, but came up empty each time. Alibaba notched its own big failure in a bid for the U.S. market shortly after its record-breaking U.S. IPO in 2014. Tencent also made a notable failed play at the U.S. with its popular WeChat instant messaging service around five years ago.

Ctrip drops its “C”

All that said, let’s zoom in on the latest headlines involving Ctrip and JD.com over the past week. Ctrip’s announcement is the larger of the pair, with the company proposing a change that would see it drop the “C” in its English name, which presumably stands for “China,” to become simply Trip.com.

Ctrip purchased the globally-focused Trip.com site two years ago, and said on its latest earnings call that revenue from non-China customers now accounts for 10% to 15% of its total. In addition to users from Trip.com, the company’s other big source of non-Chinese business is European site Skyscanner, which it bought in 2016 for up to 1.4 billion pounds ($1.7 billion).

Meantime, JD.com last week announced its fintech affiliate would partner with Thailand's largest retailer to jointly launch a local digital wallet app called Dolfin. That was JD’s latest move into Southeast Asia, where it has opened a similar string of joint ventures aimed at tapping local markets.

Of that pair of developments, Ctrip’s seems a bit larger and reflective of a company that could someday play in the same arena with the likes of global giants like Expedia and Priceline. That Ctrip could be the first to take off globally isn’t all that surprising, since the travel space is probably the most commoditized in the online realm, with a relatively small group of airlines, hotels and other players providing products in a narrow price range.

In the more dynamic e-commerce realm, JD.com and Alibaba have been at the forefront of things with a number of overseas experiments. While JD seems more focused on joint ventures in select markets, Alibaba has been thinking bigger. AliExpress is one of its older platforms in that regard, selling mostly Chinese goods to online shoppers in a number of overseas markets. More recently it has also invested around $4 billion for more than 90% of Lazada, a Southeast Asian-focused e-commerce company.

Alibaba clearly has far more money to invest than JD.com, which is perhaps why it’s probably the more successful overseas. But when it comes to who’s the most successful Chinese internet company overseas to date, the answer appears to be “none of the above” for the names I’ve described so far. Instead, that award goes to up-and-comer ByteDance, which has wowed many with the overseas success of its TikTok video streaming app, which goes by Douyin in China.

ByteDance actually got much of TikTok’s international user base through its 2017 purchase of Musical.ly, which was also developed in China but had become popular in the U.S. by that time. ByteDance scrapped the Musical.ly service a year later and migrated its users to TikTok.

Most of my contacts, and the tech world in general, have been impressed by ByteDance’s success at home with its Toutiao news app and also with TikTok. Accordingly, this company now looks like the favorite to watch in the ongoing race to finally produce a Chinese internet company that could finally go head-to-head in terms of global success alongside the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com

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