Beijing - Facebook and Twitter face a daunting task in China, if access to their social networks is unblocked, as they would be up against deeply entrenched domestic rivals that cater to local needs and tastes.
Years of isolated growth means China’s sophisticated social media companies, including Tencent Holdings, Sina and Renren, will not be too worried if Facebook and Twitter prise open the door to thew country’s 591 million internet users, the world’s biggest online population.
Access to Facebook and Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, but the barriers would be lifted by the government in the Shanghai free trade zone (FTZ), which is due to launch this weekend, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday. The move has been popularly dubbed the “Internet Concession”.
But it may be too late for them to repeat their success elsewhere in one of the most promising, yet most restricted, internet markets, where online advertising revenues soared almost 47 percent last year to $12.3 billion (R121bn).
“The Chinese social media landscape is among the most developed, sophisticated landscapes out there,” said Sam Flemming, the chief executive of China-based social media intelligence firm CIC. “These aren’t just niche social networks, these are a major part of the internet in China.”
Tencent’s popular social messaging app, WeChat, has 236 million active users, more than half of all China’s smartphone users, and micro-blogging service Sina Weibo had more than 500 million registered accounts last year.
Tencent, whose market value topped $100bn this month, stole the march on rivals with WeChat, which lets users talk privately and in groups, play games and send voice messages.
Facebook, valued at $118bn, said in its initial public offering prospectus last year that its Chinese market share was almost zero, and recent studies say Twitter has no more than 50 000 active users in China. Access to both is limited to people with virtual private networks that can bypass China’s Great Firewall – the colloquial term for Beijing’s internet blocking mechanism.
A major challenge for the likes of Facebook and Twitter on entering the Chinese internet would be how to address the issue of official censorship, which has a stranglehold on domestic online media. Chinese authorities are cracking down on anyone posting “online rumours” and have arrested influential celebrities on Weibo, known as Big Vs, and even jailed a 16-year-old boy for spreading rumours online.
“Facebook would make extensive compromises it’s not willing to make in other parts of the world in order to facilitate its introduction in China,” said David Kirkpatrick, the author of The Facebook Effect, adding that a Chinese fondness for brands, and a desire to interact globally, would draw users to the social network.
Overall, the effect of China unblocking these social networks, even on a scale larger than just the Shanghai FTZ, was likely to be limited, he said. “The impact is primarily on people who have a global point of view.” – Reuters