Understanding China’s Youth Through Tencent’s QQ: A New Must-Read Report


As China becomes more developed and sophisticated, more westerners are coming to China to understand the reasons for its success. I don’t believe that the Chinese success can be fully ascribed to China’s rising wealth and development; a good deal also has to deal with how western countries have screwed up in their politics and policies.

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Right now, China is the one-eyed man.

Setting this aside, there are areas where China’s growth is remarkable.

In a recent blog posting, Henry Jenkins of MIT shows how much more willing Chinese youth are to live their lives out and share their behavior with complete strangers in a manner American youth are not yet willing to. Here are some of the statistics (mostly in percentages) of what he has observed:

# Almost five times as many Chinese as American respondents said they have a parallel life online (61 percent vs. 13 percent).

# More than twice as many Chinese respondents agreed that “I have experimented with how I present myself online” (69 percent vs. 28 percent of Americans).

# More than half the Chinese sample (51 percent) said they have adopted a completely different persona in some of their online interactions, compared with only 17 percent of Americans.

# Fewer than a third of Americans (30 percent) said the Internet helps their social life, but more than three-quarters of Chinese respondents (77 percent) agreed that “The Internet helps me make friends.”

# Chinese respondents were also more likely than Americans to say they have expressed personal opinions or written about themselves online (72 percent vs. 56 percent). And they have expressed themselves more strongly online than they generally do in person (52 percent vs. 43 percent of Americans).

# Chinese respondents were almost twice as likely as Americans to agree that it’s good to be able to express honest opinions anonymously online (79 percent vs. 42 percent) and to agree that online they are free to do and say things they would not do or say offline (73 percent vs. 32 percent).

Some of the differences can be accounted for because, until recently, Chinese played relatively few games using game consoles, an area American youth have long had free access and exposure to. Instead, they play games in the Internet cafe, which offers an online and offline social experience which has not existed until very recently on the Microsoft and Sony platforms, and which has been addressed very well with Nintendo’s Wii.

These statistics do not tell us much about China on their own; I frequently insist that if one is to really understand what makes China’s Internet different it is necessary to dig deeper and look at its development at least from the application level. If one were to make even the most cursory look at users in any Internet cafe in China, one would find that most if not all, would have an instant messaging (IM) window open and are chatting with their friends while they are playing an online game. Lately I have noticed that in the Starbucks I frequent near Guomao in Beijing (Starbucks in China often offers free WiFi, compared with the US which charges users a daily subscription through its partnership with T-Mobile; go figure), many office types often have an IM window open even when they are busily working through their Excel spreadsheets.

For this reason, I particularly welcome the recent report by Plus8Star on Tencent’s QQ which started as a simple IM client and has now metamorphosized into China’s largest online company, and which has more than than 270M users in China. Basically, it has become what AOL would have become if it had been able to pull everything off with its acquisition of ICQ in 1998. In fact, the first version of QQ was called OICQ, standing for “open ICQ”; in its early days the company approached AOL seeking to become its China partner; it was brushed off. Now the company is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and has a market cap of US$11.4B.

The report is available in a free downloadable PDF version; the full version costs US$3,000. The greatest value of this report for those coming into China is that it provides valuable context and answers the “how” and “why” China’s Internet has developed the way it has.

Too much of the time, western observers claim that China’s Internet has changed the way it has because of Chinese government control and policy; not enough is mentioned about the business reasons why local competitors have succeeded why western companies have failed. This reports does a good job of plugging that hole in most peoples’ knowledge.

The title of the report sums it up: “Inside QQ: Learning from China’s leading online community”. An especially helpful page is page 23 of the report “Why do global giants fail in China?”. There have been billions of dollars which have been expended, and mistakes have been repeated over and over again in their quest for western dominance of the Chinese consumer market. I’m amazed that it continues to this day. This page alone is worth the price of the whole report; just read it.

If you are a business person anxious to break into the Chinese consmer market, or are just interested in learning more about the Chinese Internet, this report is a must-read.

3 Responses to “Understanding China’s Youth Through Tencent’s QQ: A New Must-Read Report”

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