Digital Threads Between the U.S. and China

As the world’s two superpowers grow further apart, the internet environments in the U.S. and China are increasingly separate digital worlds. U.S. internet companies have mostly flopped in China, and with notable exceptions, apps from China haven’t gone big outside their home country.

Digital life in each country is largely walled off from the other, but the two online spheres are not totally isolated. There is a cross-fertilization of digital ideas between the U.S. and China as well as threads of interdependence, showing that hard borders and political divisions are not absolute roadblocks to the internet bringing a fractured world a bit closer together.

The shreds of ties still existing between the parallel digital spheres of China and the U.S. demonstrate both the failure of the idea that the internet can break down nationalist walls, and that online innovations can slip past borders and censorship.

For sure, the divisions are real. It’s hard to overstate just how different the online experiences are for people in China and the U.S.

Most popular websites and apps in the West — including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Spotify, LinkedIn and Uber — are essentially banned by China’s government or have fallen on their faces in the country.

Airbnb, the last remaining large U.S. internet company in China, said this week that it would close its six-year-old home rental service there. The company, however, will continue to operate a business serving Chinese tourists traveling outside the country, my colleague Erin Griffith reported.

Airbnb’s decision was effectively an admission that the company, like Google, Amazon and Uber, has been outfoxed by Chinese competitors. Those U.S. companies likely never had much of a shot in a country where the government tightly controls the internet and has made business difficult for many foreign (and recently, also Chinese) tech companies.

You can count the Western tech companies that have thrived in China on one hand. There’s Apple and … that’s it? Maybe you could also include companies like Microsoft that have had some mild success selling software or tech equipment to corporations.

It’s been nearly as uncommon for Chinese digital stars to make headway in the U.S. or many other large countries. TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet conglomerate ByteDance, is a notable exception. There’s also Didi, China’s on-demand ride titan, which has expanded into Latin America and other regions, although the Chinese government’s tech crackdown has hurt the company.

But the digital spheres of the two global superpowers are not entirely separate.

People in China can’t officially access Facebook or Google, but the companies sell billions of dollars in ads to businesses based in China that want to reach Chinese nationals or Chinese-speaking people elsewhere in the world.

Brian Wieser, the global president of business intelligence for the advertising firm GroupM, says that companies based in China are responsible for roughly $10 billion of Facebook’s 2021 ad sales. That’s a lot of money for companies with zero official users in China.

There would be no Amazon as we know it without the boom in merchants from China that have expanded the product selection of the digital mall, as I wrote in On Tech yesterday.

Trends and business ideas also move between the separate internets in China and the U.S. Perhaps you remember when each new smartphone was smaller than the last? Then larger-screen smartphones became popular among Chinese consumers, contributing to the dominance everywhere now of supersized phones. If you love your gigantic iPhone, you can partly thank 2010s smartphone buyers in Beijing and Shanghai.

There have been other Chinese trends that have shaped Americans’ online experiences. U.S. internet companies have made so far unsuccessful but relentless attempts to mimic live internet shopping-as-entertainment programs from China. And executives’ and investors’ hopes for food delivery services in the U.S. and Europe stem partly from the ubiquity of food delivery services in China.

The copying goes in the other direction, too. Didi started out as a dispatch app for conventional car services. But when Uber opened its doors in China in 2014, connecting people with nonprofessional drivers, it influenced how Didi operated, too. Uber gave up on China in 2016, but the company left its mark on Chinese transportation.

Don’t get me wrong: The divisions far outweigh the fuzzy links between the internet systems in China and the U.S. And it’s hard to imagine that changing. China and the U.S. are growing further apart, both politically and online.

But I find some measure of hope that China’s authoritarian internet controls and the animosities between the U.S. and China can’t completely wall off the two countries’ digital worlds.

  • More signs of fear and cutbacks in tech: Lyft said it would slow hiring and cut the budgets of some departments. Uber is freezing hiring. Snap warned this week that its advertising sales were weaker than the company expected. A prominent start-up investor recently advised young businesses to conserve cash. Amazon is cutting back on warehouse space. This is all evidence that sinking stock prices, unsteady sales and uncertain economic conditions are spooking many tech companies.

  • His D.I.Y. phone repair went very badly. My colleague Brian X. Chen broke his iPhone trying to use Apple’s new instructions and tools intended to help people and independent repair shops fix its gadgets. Brian concluded that there were some benefits to Apple’s repair program, but that it “set up the customer to fail,” as one technician told him.

  • It’s an anachronism but a lovely one: Bloomberg CityLab wrote about vending machines at Bay Area transit stations that dispense printed short stories for people to read and pass along. Why not display a QR code or some other digital doodad? “It wouldn’t be the same!” the publication wrote.

The view from one person’s remote work spot at a coffee shop: A duck (apparently wearing shoes) wandered onto the sidewalk seating area. Someone brought the duck a drink of water.

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