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Cyber-capitalism with Chinese characteristics

Unlike India and rest of the world, Chinese Internet platforms are all Chinese (Hong, 2017a; CNNIC, 2019). Much of the international literature on the Internet in China is focused on issues surrounding censorship and control. Relatively little attention has been given to its thriving and globalizing electronic economy - what I have termed elsewhere as ‘cyber-capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ (Thussu, 2018: 26). One fundamental reason why a Chinese Internet exists and in fact is booming, is that it was able to create, protect and develop its own digital properties by restricting the entry of global giants such as Google, which exited China in 2010 (Sheehan, 2018).Today, Chinese digital companies are increasingly globalizing: a notable example is TikTok, the short video app from Chinese company Byte Dance, which has grown explosively since its 2016 launch, with 800 million monthly active users - 300 million of them outside China. In 2019,TikTok became the most downloaded app on the iOS App Store.

The Alibaba group owns multiple online market places including Taobao, a consumer-to-consumer platform with more than 600 million active monthly users, many outside China in Southeast Asia,Turkey, Europe and India. Baidu runs China’s largest search-engine, owning multiple content, advertising and app services, and Tencent Games is the world’s largest video game company. In 2018, Chinese companies raised $6.75 billion in the US IPO market, with companies in the telecommunications, media and technology industry accounting for about 70 per cent of total IPOs. These included the video streaming platform, Iqiyi ($2.25 billion); the online group discounter, Pinduoduo ($1.63 billion); the streaming app provided by Tencent, QQ Music ($1.07 billion); the anime video streaming platform, Bilibili (S483 million) and the livestreaming gaming platform, Huya (S180 million) (Sheehan, 2018; China Internet Report 2019).

According to the China Internet Report 2019, published annually by the Hong Kong-based, Alibaba-owned newspaper, South China Morning Post, Tencent topped the Chinese cyber giants with a market value of $418 billion, followed by Alibaba at $416 billion. To put these figures in context, in 2019 the top five global Internet corporations (in terms of market capitalization) were all USbased conglomerates: Microsoft (SI trillion), Amazon ($888 million), Apple

($875 million), Alphabet ($741 million) and Facebook ($495 million).These companies do not merely operate in a national space but are integrated in global flows of capital: Alibaba, for instance, received investment from US-based Goldman Sachs and the Japanese Soft Bank (which also invested in Toutiao, NetEase and Didi). Other major Western investments included Walmart and Google in Baidu. Investment is also flowing the other way: in 2018, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent invested in 280 companies of which 42 were overseas investments (China Internet Report, 2019).

China’s sophisticated digital payment system, built on digital wallets and QR codes, is ahead of many Western nations. Ali-Pay (part of Alibaba, in operation since 2011 and now called Ant Financial) accounts for 60 per cent of the Chinese e-commerce market and WeChat Pay (introduced in 2013 and owned by Tencent) had more than one billion monthly users in 2019. These two digital payment services are increasingly being used outside China and are seen as being highly suitable for adoption by countries with less-developed banking industries (World Bank, 2018a).

Although still in its early stages, Intra-BRICS digital commerce is also growing, arguably the, initial signs of a process of de-Americanizing cyber trade. In 2019, China’s investment in India exceeded $8 billion, including Alibaba’s in Paytm, India’s best-known digital payment system, while Tencent invested in India’s first billion-dollar gaming company, Dreamll (Gateway House, 2020).TikTok had as many as 200 million users in India in 2019 (in contrast to Instagram’s 80 million). In 2018, Alibaba set up a joint venture with the Russian mobile operator Megafon and to create the AliExpress Russia e-commerce website (Economist, 2019). South Africa’s media conglomerate Naspers has investments in Tencent and, as well as in the Indian online travel company, Make My Trip and Brazil’s mobile marketplace, Movile (Teer-Tomaselli,Tomaselli and Dludla, 2019).

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