One of my biggest complaints about western observers of China is the overly used term “China market”. In fact, there is no China market, just as there is no European market. While there is a European Union, which many Europeans complain about as some kind of bloated legislative bureaucratic monster, it would be silly for any marketer to think that there is anything like a European market on the ground. After all, what are you talking about? Are you talking about the UK, Germany, Belgium, Spain or Italy? Even within these national markets, there are vast social and cultural differences within the same country.
While China is ruled as a single nation from Beijing, the political, regional, social and cultural differences within China are just as big as in Europe. While many western observers see Beijing as authoritarian, the truth is that Beijing has to play a huge juggling act among its own provinces. Every time the center asks for something from the provinces, it has to offer the provinces something in return. In this respect, China is just like the US, Russia and other big countries. There is endless bargaining, trading and swapping of favors, most of which does not occur publicly and is not common knowledge.
These local differences even extend to Internet businesses. The two biggest and most successful companies which dominate in CPC advertising and micropayments are both based in Shenzhen, and are not in Beijing and Shanghai. They are Tencent and Xunlei. Tencent is the leader in charging for micropayment-based subscription services and is the leader with its popular instant messaging client, QQ. Tencent is publicly listed in Hong Kong, and analysts love the company’s business model. Xunlei is a leader in P2P distribution of video, and inserts ads into video content before sending them on their way through its network. Although it is still private, it is already profitable, and Google has invested in the company.
If you go to Beijing, the media landscape is dominated by Sina, Sohu and Netease, China’s leading portals. I think of these companies as being like Web 1.0 national newspapers; they are like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times in China for the Internet generation. Because media content is a politically sensitive area in China, they need to be close to the government, which is why they are in Beijing.
And Shanghai is where most of the gaming companies are. While Beijing is home to serious media and sports, Shanghai is much more entertainment oriented. In the twenties and thirties, Shanghai was the home for China’s film industry; and the talent for entertainment had strong roots in Shanghai. After 1949, many of the producers, directors and actors moved to Hong Kong, but with China’s opening up, many have returned to their old base in Shanghai.
Think about it. Why is it the case that two of the leading micropayments companies in China are based in Shenzhen? I believe that being in Shenzhen forced these two companies to be much more consumer-oriented since fewer VCs ventured there. The paucity of easy access to capital forced them to be creative. In their early days, they were able to get favorable rents, cheaper employees and lower their other costs because of favorable terms from the Shenzhen municipal government. Micropayments really started in desperation as a payment system for poor people who had no credit in a nation without a national credit-ranking system who did not have credit cards. Without money from VCs, these companies were forced to innovate, and had to come up with a solution which got money from consumers.
Getting paid by your users; what a neat idea!
In China, many smart entrepreneurs go to second- and even third-tier cities so that they can get a local municipal government to support them. This is called finding a 靠山 or literally “a mountain to lean on”. After all, every city official wants to be able to say someday: “I helped set up Tencent (or Xunlei, or whatever.)” That would look good on their resume.
I’m always mystified that western-funded companies like to set up in Beijing and Shanghai; why don’t they strike out into other Chinese cities? Most of the time, I think it’s because their management are able to enjoy a level of living which is closer to what they would enjoy in the west. The problem is that because they are more like western cities than most Chinese cities, they give a skewed and sanitized view of what China is really like.
As a result, they unwittingly hand over the advantage to smart local Chinese companies. With the huge number of Internet companies in those two cities of Shanghai and Beijing, it’s almost impossible to find any Chinese government officials who can serve the role of mountains to lean on. And when you can find them, the cost of the mountains are much higher.