China Roundup: Beijing is tearing down the digital ‘walled gardens’

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, China gets serious about breaking down the walled gardens that its internet giants have formed for decades. Two major funding rounds were announced, from the newly established autonomous driving unicorn Deeproute.ai and fast-growing, cross-border financial service provider XTransfer.

Tear down the walls

The Chinese internet is infamously siloed, with a handful of “super apps” each occupying a cushy, protective territory that tries to lock users in and keep rivals out. On Tencent’s WeChat messenger, for instance, links to Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace and ByteDance’s Douyin short video service can’t be viewed or even redirected. That’s unlike WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal that offer friendly URL previews within chats.

E-commerce platforms fend off competition in different ways. Taobao uses Alibaba’s affiliate Alipay as a default payments option, omitting its arch rival WeChat Pay. Tencent-backed JD.com, a rival to Alibaba, encourages its users to pay through its own payments system or WeChat Pay.

But changes are underway. “Ensuring normal access to legal URLs is the basic requirement for developing the internet,” a senior official from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said at a press conference this week. He added that unjustified blockages of web links “affect users’ experience, undermine users’ rights, and disrupt market orders.”

There is some merit in filtering third-party links when it comes to keeping out the likes of pornography, misinformation and violent content. Content distributors in China also strictly abide by censorship rules, silencing politically sensitive discussions. These principles will stay in place, and MIIT’s new order is really to crack anticompetitive practices and wane the power of the bloated internet giants.

The call to end digital walled gardens is part of MIIT’s campaign, started in July, to restore “orders” to the Chinese internet. While crackdowns on internet firms are routine, the spate of new policies announced in recent months — from new data security rules to heightened gaming restrictions — signify Beijing’s resolution to curb the influence of Chinese internet firms of all kinds.

The deadline for online platforms to unblock URLs is September 17, the MIIT said earlier. Virtually all the major internet companies have swiftly issued statements saying they will firmly carry out MIIT’s requirements and help promote the healthy development of the Chinese internet.

Internet users are bound to benefit from the dismantling of the walled gardens. They will be able to browse third-party content smoothly on WeChat without having to switch between apps. They can share product links from Taobao right within the messenger instead of having their friends copy-paste a string of cryptic codes that Taobao automatically generates for WeChat sharing.

Robotaxi dream

Autonomous driving startup Deeproute.ai said this week it has closed a $300 million Series B round from investors including Alibaba, Jeneration Capital, and Chinese automaker Geely. The valuation of this round was undisclosed.

We’ve seen a lot of publicity from Pony.ai, WeRide, Momenta and AutoX but not so much Deeproute.ai. That in part is because the company is relatively young, founded only in 2019 by Zhou Guang after he was “fired” by his co-founders at the once-promising Roadstar.ai amid company infighting.

Investors in Roadstar.ai reportedly saw the dismissal of Zhou as detrimental to the startup, which had raised at least $140 million up to that point, and subsequently sought to dissolve the business. It appears that Zhou, formerly the chief scientist at Roadstar, still commands the trust of some investors to support his reborn autonomous driving venture.

Like Pony.ai and WeRide, Deeproute is trying to operate its own robotaxi fleets. While the business model gives it control over reams of driving data, it’s research- and cash-intensive. As such, major Chinese robotaxi startups are all looking at faster commercial deployments, like self-driving buses and trucks, to ease their financial stress.

Cross-border trade boom

The other major funding news this week comes from Shanghai-based XTransfer, which helps small-and-medium Chinese exporters collect payments from overseas. The Series C round, led by D1 Partners, pulled in $138 million and catapulted Xtransfer’s valuation to over $1 billion. The proceeds will go towards product development, hiring and global expansion.

Founded by former executives from Ant Group, XTransfer tries to solve a pain point faced by small and medium exporters: opening and maintaining bank accounts in different countries can be difficult and costly. As such, XTransfer works as a payments gateway between its SME customer, the party that pays it, and their respective banks.

As of July, XTransfer’s customers had surpassed 150,000, most of which are in mainland China. The company of over 1,000 employees is also expanding into Southeast Asia.

While business-to-business export is booming in China, more and more products are also being directly sold from Chinese brands to consumers around the world. Some of the most successful examples, like Shein and Anker, use a different set of payments processors for their direct-to-consumer sales, which tend to be in bigger volume but smaller in average ticket value.

#alibaba, #alibaba-group, #alipay, #ant-group, #asia, #beijing, #bytedance, #china, #china-roundup, #geely, #jack-ma, #jd-com, #momenta, #online-payments, #robotaxi, #shanghai, #shein, #southeast-asia, #taobao, #tc, #tencent, #wechat, #xtransfer

China roundup: Tencent takes on sites trying to circumvent its age limits

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The enforcement of China’s new gaming regulations is unfolding like a cat-and-mouse game, with the country’s internet giants and young players constantly trying to outsmart each other. Following Didi’s app ban, smaller ride-hailing apps are availing themselves of the potential market vacuum.

Tencent and young gamers

The Chinese saying “Where there is a policy, there is a countermeasure” nicely encapsulates what is happening in the country’s tightening regulatory environment for video games. This month, China enacted the strictest rules to date on playtime among underage users. Players under the age of 18 were startled, scrambling to find methods to overcome the three-hour-per-week quota.

Within days, gaming behemoth Tencent has acted to root out these workarounds. It sued or issued statements to over 20 online services selling or trading adult accounts to underage players, the company’s gaming department said in a notice on Weibo this week.

Children were renting these accounts to play games for two hours at a few dollars without having to go through the usual age verification checks. Such services “are a serious threat to the real-name gaming system and underage protection mechanism,” Tencent said, calling for an end to these practices.

Educational games

China has mainly been targeting games that are addiction-inducing or deemed “physically and mentally harmful” to minors. But what about games that are “good” for kids?

When Tencent and Roblox set up a joint venture in China in 2019, the speculation was that the creator-focused gaming platform would give Tencent a leg up in making educational games to inspire creativity or something that would help it align better with Beijing’s call for using tech to do more social good. As we wrote earlier:

Roblox’s marketing focus on encouraging “creativity” could sit well with Beijing’s call for tech companies to “do good,” an order Tencent has answered. Roblox’s Chinese website suggests it’s touting part of its business as a learning and STEM tool and shows it’s seeking collaborations with local schools and educators.

If Roblox can inspire young Chinese to design globally popular games, the Chinese authorities may start regarding it as a conduit for exporting Chinese culture and soft power. The gaming industry is well aware that aligning with Beijing’s interests is necessary for gaining support from the top. Indeed, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an organ for non-political spheres like the business community to “put forward proposals on major political and social issues,” said in June that video games are “an effective channel for China’s cultural exports.”

The case of Roblox will be interesting to watch for reading Beijing’s evolving attitude toward games for educational and export purposes.

Didi challengers

Didi has had many rivals over the years, but none has managed to threaten its dominance in China’s ride-hailing industry. But recently, some of its rivals are seeing a new opportunity after regulators banned new downloads of Didi’s app, citing cybersecurity concerns. Cao Cao Mobility appears to be one.

Cao Cao, a premium ride-hailing service under Chinese automaker Geely, announced this week a $589 million Series B raise. The round should give Cao Cao ammunition for subsidizing drivers and passengers. But amid the government’s spade of anti-competition crackdowns, internet platforms these days are probably less aggressive than Didi in its capital-infused growth phase around 2015.

The app ban seems to have had a limited effect on Didi so far. The app even saw a 13% increase in orders in July, according to the Ministry of Transport. While people who get new phones will not be able to download Didi, they still are able to access its mini app run on WeChat, which is ubiquitous in China and has a sprawling ecosystem of third-party apps. It’s unclear how many active users Didi has lost, but its rivals will no doubt have to shell out great incentives to lure the giant’s drivers and customers away.

DTC fast fashion

Venture capitalists are pouring money into China’s direct-to-consumer brands in the hope that the country’s supply chain advantage coupled with its pool of savvy marketers will win over Western consumers. July saw PatPat, a baby clothing brand, raise a sizable $510 million raise. This month, news came that up-and-coming DTC brand Cider, which makes Gen Z fast fashion in China and sells them in the U.S., has secured a $130 million Series B round at a valuation of over $1 billion. The news was first reported by Chinese tech news site 36Kr and we’ve independently confirmed it. 

DST Global led Cider’s new round, with participation also from the startup’s existing A16Z, an existing investor and Greenoaks Capital. Investors are clearly encouraged by Shein’s momentum around the world — its new download volume has surpassed that of Amazon in dozens of countries and is often compared side by side with industry behemoth Zara. Unlike a pure internet firm, export-oriented e-commerce has a notoriously long and complex value chain, from design, production, marketing and shipment to after-sales service. Shein’s story might have inspired many followers, but it won’t be easily replicated.

#amazon, #beijing, #china, #didi, #dst-global, #geely, #greenoaks-capital, #roblox, #shein, #tc, #tencent, #wechat

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #asia, #australia, #competition-commission-of-india, #computing, #european-union, #google, #government, #india, #itunes, #japan, #mobile, #operating-system, #policy, #smartphone, #smartphones, #software, #south-korea, #technology, #united-states, #wechat

Tencent’s WeChat suspends new user registration in China to comply with ‘relevant laws and regulations’

Tencent’s WeChat said on Tuesday it is temporarily suspending registration of new users in China as it works to comply with “relevant laws and regulations,” the latest Chinese firm to face regulatory scrutiny in the world’s largest internet market.

In a social media post, Tencent said it is “upgrading” its security technology to align with all relevant laws and regulations and while this process in underway “registration of new Weixin personal and official accounts has been temporarily suspended.”

“Registration services will be restored after the upgrade is complete, which is expected in early August,” the company, which has amassed over 1 billion monthly active users, said in a statement.

It’s not immediately clear which law WeChat is citing in its announcement but the move comes at a time amid a broad crackdown on tech firms by Chinese regulators. The crackdown has wiped hundreds of billions of dollars in market cap for Chinese firms and many high-profile global investors including SoftBank are impacted.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #china, #didi, #government, #social, #tencent, #wechat

Messaging social network IRL hits unicorn status with SoftBank-led $170M Series C

Social calendar app IRL has been busy building a messaging-based social network, or what founder and CEO Abraham Shafi calls a “WeChat of the West.” Following its pandemic-fueled growth and further push into the social networking space with group chat and other features, IRL is today announcing a sizable $170 million Series C growth round, led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. The fundraise also mints IRL as a new unicorn with a $1.17 billion valuation.

Besides SoftBank, new investor Dragoneer also participated in the oversubscribed round, alongside returning investors Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund and Floodgate. To date, IRL has raised over $200 million.

The startup began its life as a tool for discovering real-world events — an industry that went to zero almost overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That could have been the end for IRL, but the startup quickly pivoted to prioritize discovery of online events instead. Under COVID lockdowns, users could turn to the app to find things like livestreamed concerts, esports events, Zoom parties and more.

Image Credits: IRL

IRL focused on pulling in popular online events from places like Live Nation, Twitch, YouTube, TikTok and others.

As a result, IRL became more accessible because its audience was no longer limited only to those who had time and money to travel to real-world events.

That focus also helped the app to attract a crowd of younger users who are of the generation that doesn’t use Facebook.

“They essentially use Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok,” explains Shafi. “But there is no groups and events product for that generation,” he points out.

Earlier this year, the company doubled down on its social networking features with the launch of a new site that added things like user profiles, support for group chats, the ability to join group events, personalized recommendations and more. As users could now network with friends across both web and mobile, IRL began to feel more like a social network, not just an event-discovery engine.

Image Credits: IRL

Today, IRL has 20 million users and 12 million who use the app monthly, which are not startling numbers in comparison to major social networks and their billions of users. But the numbers are representative of a steady approach that helped IRL grow 400% over the past 15 months, despite COVID’s impact to real-world events.

But as of recently, things are starting to change. In-person events are starting to return. California, the home state for San Francisco-based IRL, is today re-opening, for example. That opens up IRL to once again focus on connecting people not just online, but also “in real life,” as its name implies.

That could mean helping people better connect around events with not just their own friend group, as is often the case today, but helping them discover new groups in their local area or on campus. The company is even planning to use a portion of its fundraise to help fuel the new events economy by allocating a certain amount of money per city that will go toward helping people put on real-world events. The exact details are still being worked out, Shafi says, but says the idea is that IRL wants to help “bring culture back in cities that are opening up again.”

IRL also plans to expand its international footprint by finding ways to bring in non-U.S. users to its platform — possibly beginning with the events focused on watching the Olympics. (If the Games are not again delayed or canceled due to a COVID surge.)

Shafi says IRL hadn’t been planning to fundraise, but they decided to take the meetings when they were approached.

“The philosophy is not to raise when you have to, but to raise when it makes sense. And we were scaling like crazy to the point where our servers were melting. It made sense to take those discussions very seriously when they came to us,” he says.

The addition of SoftBank and Dragoneer brings some expertise in scaling large social networks to the IRL team. SoftBank’s other notable social networking investment is with TikTok owner’s Bytedance, while Dragoneer has backed Snap. IRL has already has a close relationship with TikTok as it’s worked with the video app to pull in interesting events for discovery. It more recently integrated with TikTok’s new “Login Kit,” too, allowing TikTok users to authenticate with IRL using their TikTok credentials.

Now, IRL plans to add an even deeper TikTok integration — something that caught SoftBank’s attention.

Shafi is cagey on the details, but says more will be announced in the “coming weeks.”

“But what I can say is that we’ve seen a ton of growth of TikTok users linking to IRL group chats and IRL events through their TikTok profiles as a way to communicate and go deeper in relationships,” he says. “If you think about it, right now Instagram has really great messaging…whereas TikTok is still developing that,” he hints.

Image Credits: IRL

Beyond its value to growing social networks for the younger, Facebook-less generation, IRL is thinking about how to build a profitable business without ad revenue. On this front, it sees potential in helping people connect through paid events — although these wouldn’t have to be influencer-driven as on other platforms. In fact, when IRL recently piloted paid group chats, users were willing to pay for access to things like a calc homework help group, for example.

IRL also sees demand for tools that help groups and clubs collect membership dues and other fees, as well as for events that are too small for Ticketmaster or Eventbrite.

“Whether we succeed or fail will be based on our ability to execute on our opportunity,” says Shafi, adding that most social networks today are focused on media more so than helping users make connections. “What we’re building isn’t the media part of social, it’s the real human interaction part of social, because that hasn’t been paid attention to as much.”

“We’re building a messaging social network,” he continues, comparing it to the biggest messaging social network in the world, WeChat. “The big vision that we’re going for is building the WeChat of the West — a messaging super social network. And it starts with people organizing groups and doing things together,” he says.

With the additional funding, IRL will invest in product growth, international expansion and its Creator and Culture Fund, and will grow its now 25-person remotely distributed team to 100 by year-end.

“People are increasingly seeking more in-person social connections and are looking to share meaningful experiences together. As an innovative event-based social network, IRL sits at the intersection of group and event discovery, social calendaring, and group messaging, enabling people to do more together,” added Serena Dayal, director at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement about its investment. “We are excited to partner with Abraham and the IRL team to support their ambition of helping everyone deepen their connections to friends and family.”

#abraham-shafi, #apps, #covid, #founders-fund, #funding, #goodwater-capital, #irl, #mobile-applications, #online-events, #recent-funding, #social, #social-calendar, #social-network, #social-networks, #softbank-group, #softbank-investment-advisers, #softbank-vision-fund-2, #startups, #tc, #tiktok, #twitch, #united-states, #wechat

Snap brings partner-centric Layers to its social map used by 250 million people

Snap wants users to get a more personal view of the world around them.

While products like Google Maps and Apple Maps have long-relied on data partners to juice the quality of their contextual insights, Snap is hoping it can give users a more hands-on approach to mixing and matching third-party tie-ins to its Snap Map product, allowing users to build a view of their geographic surroundings that tailored to their interests.

The new product — announced today at the company’s Snap Partner Summit — is called Layers and it allows users to add data from some of Snap’s chosen developer partners directly to their map so they can see the world in a very particular view.

“Layers are how the Map evolves from a singular product to a platform,” Snap’s Bryant Detwiller tells TechCrunch. “Ultimately, we just want our map to be more useful.”

Snap Map has aimed to be a fundamentally social product, designed around people and friends rather than cars and directions, Layers will theoretically allow its users some customization in deciding what points-of-interest they want their map to be structured around.

The company says that Snap Map has some 250 million monthly active users.

Ticketmaster integration via Snap

Like Snap’s approach with its Wechat-like Minis and Games, it’s starting things off pretty slowly when it comes to partnerships. It has two out of the gate — a partnership with Ticketmaster and restaurant review site The Infatuation.

With the Ticketmaster Layer, users will be able to sort through shows at nearby concert venues and can get transferred from the Layer directly to a new Ticketmaster Mini to buy tickets inside the Snapchat app. With The Infatuation, users can scan the map for editorialized recommendations for nearby restaurants with lists and reviews from the site. More of these partnerships on the way, though it doesn’t sound like Snap is planning to open the floodgates to developers anytime soon.

#google-maps, #instant-messaging, #mobile-applications, #operating-systems, #snap-inc, #snapchat, #software, #tc, #ticketmaster, #vertical-video, #wechat

Google updates its cross-platform Flutter UI toolkit

Flutter, Google’s cross-platform UI toolkit for building mobile and desktop apps, is getting a small but important update at the company’s I/O conference today. Google also announced that Flutter now powers 200,000 apps in the Play Store alone, including popular apps from companies like WeChat, ByteDance, BMW, Grab and DiDi. Indeed, Google notes that 1 in 8 new apps in the Play Store are now Flutter apps.

The launch of Flutter 2.2 follows Google’s rollout of Flutter 2, which first added support for desktop and web apps in March, so it’s no surprise that this is a relatively minor release. In many ways, the update builds on top of the features the company introduced in version 2 and reliability and performance improvements.

Version 2.2 makes null safety the default for new projects, for example, to add protections against null reference exceptions. As for performance, web apps can now use background caching using service workers, for example, while Android apps can use deferred components and iOS apps get support for precompiled shaders to make first runs smoother.

Google also worked on streamlining the overall process of bringing Flutter apps to desktop platforms (Windows, macOS and Linux).

But as Google notes, a lot of the work right now is happening in the ecosystem. Google itself is introducing a new payment plugin for Flutter built in partnership with the Google Pay team and Google’s ads SDK for Flutter is getting support for adaptive banner formats. Meanwhile, Samsung is now porting Flutter to Tizen and Sony is leading an effort to bring it to embedded Linux. Adobe recently announced its XD to Flutter plugin for its design tool and Microsoft today launched the alpha of Flutter support for Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for Windows 10 in alpha.

#adobe, #alpha, #android, #bytedance, #caching, #chrome-os, #computing, #flutter, #google, #google-i-o-2021, #google-pay, #linux, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #operating-systems, #play-store, #samsung, #sony, #tc, #universal-windows-platform, #web-apps, #wechat, #windows-10

Shein overtakes Amazon as the most installed shopping app in US

Shein‘s quiet rise has reached a crescendo as the fast fashion e-commerce app takes the crown from Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app on iOS and Android in the United States, according to data from app tracking firms App Annie.

Its ascent is quiet because the startup, despite reportedly exceeding a $15 billion valuation, maintains an unusually low profile and doesn’t try to make itself known to the media. The app, dubbed the “TikTok for e-commerce” by China-focused internet analyst Matthew Brennan in this thorough piece on the startup, manufactures in China as many apparel retailers do.

The difference is Shein controls its own production chain, from design and prototype to procurement to manufacturing. Each step is highly digitized and integrated with another, which allows the company to churn out hundreds of new products tailored to different regions and user tastes at a daily rate. The strategy is not unlike TikTok matching content creators with users by using algorithms to understand their habits in real-time.

On May 11, Shein became the most installed shopping app on Android in the U.S., and six days later took the top spot on iOS as well.

The origin of Shein, which was previously named “She Inside,” is little understood. On its official website, it describes itself as an “international B2C fast fashion e-commerce platform” founded in 2008. There is no mention of its founder and CEO Chris Xu. In a 2018 corporate blog posted on WeChat, it wrote that it was headquartered in Nanjing, an eastern Chinese city home known for its historical heritages and home to Chinese appliance giant Suning. It also opened offices in other major Chinese cities as well as the U.S., Belgium and the United Arab Emirates.

Shein’s low profile is perhaps expected in times of geopolitical tensions and heightened regulatory scrutiny over China-related tech companies around the world. Shein owns its sales channel and user data, which distinguishes it from the swathe of generic consumer brands relying on Amazon for customer acquisition without meaningful access to user data.

As of May 17, Shein was the top iOS shopping app in 54 countries and ranked top in the category on Android devices across 13 countries.

Shein has not announced who its investors are, but Chinese media reports have listed Capital Nuts, JAFCO Asia, Greenwoods Asset Management, IDG Capital, Sequoia Capital China, Tiger Global, and Xiaomi founder’s Shunwei Capital among its backers.

We’ve reached out to Shein for comments on the story. Sequoia Capital China confirmed it’s an investor in Shein.

#amazon, #asia, #china, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #japan, #likee, #manufacturing, #nanjing, #sequoia-capital-china, #shein, #shunwei-capital, #tc, #tiger-global, #tiktok, #wechat, #xiaomi

PayPal’s ambition and uphill battle in China

Over the last few months, PayPal has been quietly gearing up for its expansion in China.

At the recent Boao Forum for Asia, China’s answer to Davos, the American payments giant said its strategy for China is not to challenge the duopoly of Alipay and WeChat Pay. Instead, it wants to focus on cross-border business and provide gateways both for Chinese merchants to collect funds and for Chinese consumers to pay for overseas goods.

It’s certainly a lucrative area. The market size of cross-border e-commerce in China surged from about 3 trillion yuan ($460 million) to nearly 6 trillion yuan between 2016 and 2021, according to market research firm iResearch.

But this space has also become crowded in recent years and PayPal may be late to the fray, said a China-based manager for an American tech giant, who asked for anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak to the media.

On Amazon, one of the largest marketplaces for Chinese exporters to sell online, there are already established options for merchants to collect funds. Setting up a bank account in a foreign country can be difficult for a small-time Chinese exporter, not to mention the high fees for remittance, so such merchants often seek third-party payments transfer solutions such as U.S.-based Payoneer and Chinese equivalents Pingpong and Lianlian, which charge a relatively small fee to deposit merchants’ sales into their bank accounts at home.

China has stringent policies for foreign exchange and electronic payments, but PayPal has already cleared the regulatory hurdles. In January, the American fintech titan became the first foreign firm to hold a license for online payment processor in China after it bought out shares in a local payments firm.

Obtaining the government greenlight is just the first step. The appeal of PayPal hinges largely on what it can offer to Chinese e-commerce exporters, who are now flooding the likes of Amazon and eBay.

“At the end of the day, customers only care which service is the cheapest and easiest to use,” said the China-based manager from the American firm.

“The Chinese cross-border payment solutions have achieved impressive results in terms of products, scale, and fees,” the person said. “I don’t think PayPal stands a chance.”

Exporters who build their own online stores instead of selling on mainstream marketplaces may still find PayPal necessary as a tool to accept payments from customers, given the app’s wide reach.

As for cross-border payments, PayPal is competing with Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Ant Group’s Alipay, which have long been ubiquitous in China. Both e-wallets have been aggressively growing their global partnerships to let China’s outbound travelers pay at overseas retailers like they would at home. Those shopping for overseas products domestically often use Chinese-owned e-commerce apps, which tend to have Alipay or WeChat Pay as their payment processor. Credit cards never became prevalent in China.

Cross-border payments have also become one of Ant’s main growth goals, according to the prospectus of its now-halted initial public offering. While overseas businesses accounted for just about 5% of the firm’s revenue in the second half of 2020, most of that segment came from cross-border payments. At the time, Ant also had plans to spend HK$52.8 billion, or 40%, of the net proceeds from its IPO on expanding its cross-border payment and merchant services as well as other overseas functionalities.

“It depends on whether PayPal is able to offer even lower fees than Ant,” said a person who previously worked on cross-border wallets for a Chinese company. “But PayPal itself is not famous for low fees.”

#alipay, #amazon, #ant-group, #asia, #china, #cross-border-e-commerce, #ebay, #ecommerce, #finance, #merchant-services, #online-payments, #online-stores, #payments, #payoneer, #paypal, #tc, #tencent, #wechat, #wechat-pay

Bilibili ups the ante in games with $123 million investment in TapTap

Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.

Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.

Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.

The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.

Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.

Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.

X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.

Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.

#android, #asia, #bilibili, #bytedance, #china, #entertainment, #gaming, #smartphone-makers, #tencent, #tiktok, #video-hosting, #wechat, #xiaomi

China to ban apps from collecting excessive user data starting May

Starting May 1, apps in China can no longer force users into providing excessive personal data, according to a document jointly released by a group of the country’s top regulators, the Cyberspace Administration, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Administration for Market Regulation.

It’s a common practice in China where apps ask users to provide sensitive personal information and those who decline to share are often denied access. While some of the requests are justifiable, such as one’s location information to use a navigation map, many others are unnecessary, such as one’s biometrics to make mobile payments.

In December, Chinese authorities lay out the acceptable range of data that different apps are entitled to collect, as TechCrunch reported

All forms of apps are subject to the requirements, including the increasingly popular “mini programs,” which are lite apps accessed through an all-encompassing native app such as WeChat and Alipay without the need for an app store install, said the new document.

For now, the document appears to be a guideline at best as it does not specify how the rules should be enforced and how offenders will be punished. While it marks China’s incremental progress on data protection, regulators will have to keep updating the rules as people’s daily lives are becoming more linked to digital devices at a rapid rate.

In recent months, China has been clamping down on the technological darlings that it used to pride itself on. It introduced a sweeping antitrust law to rein in its “platform economy” and slammed anti-competition fines on Alibaba and Tencent, following Ant Group’s IPO fiasco.

#asia, #china, #government, #ministry-of-industry-and-information-technology, #wechat

New rule reins in China’s flourishing self-publishing space

Despite China’s history of stringent media control, an industry of uninstitutionalized, individual publishers has managed to flourish on social media platforms like Tencent’s WeChat and ByteDance’s Toutiao. These self-publishers are called “We Media” in the Chinese internet lexicon, denoting the independent power of citizen journalists and content creators.

Meanwhile, self-publishers have always had to tread carefully on what they post or risk being targeted by censors who deem them illegal or inappropriate.

The topics they cover are myriad, ranging from fashion and food to politics and current affairs. WeChat, a major destination for self-publishers, hinted last July it had 20 million “public accounts”, platforms for individuals to broadcast content and in businesses’ case, reach customers. In 2020, 360 million users read articles published on WeChat public accounts, WeChat founder Allen Zhang disclosed recently.

Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, has long attracted citizen journalists. In the early days of COVID-19, millions of Chinese users rushed to Weibo seeking facts from accounts like that of Fang Fang, an author who chronicled what she had witnessed in Wuhan.

Now, a new development in China’s internet regulation is about to further restrict China’s tens of millions of self-publishers.

Public accounts that “provide online news service to the public shall obtain the Internet News Information Permit and other relevant media accreditation,” according to a new regulation (translation here) published January 22 by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet watchdog.

In the following days, WeChat, Baidu, Sohu and other online information services began notifying publishers of the new rule. “If your account lacks relevant accreditation, you are advised not to edit, report, publish or comment on news about politics, the economy, military, foreign affairs or other major current events,” according to the notice sent by WeChat.

“The WeChat Public Account Platform always commits to providing a green, healthy online environment to users,” the message adds.

The requirement of news accreditation will likely be a death knell for independent social media publishers that have taken on journalistic roles, particularly those covering politics. “It’s not something you can obtain easily unless you’re an official news outlet or an organization with unmatched resources and background,” a WeChat account publisher told TechCrunch.

China’s control on news reaches into every corner of the internet, and regulations are always playing catchup with the pace at which new media, such as microblogs and live streaming, flourishes.

From 2017 to 2018, the cyberspace authority granted news permits to a total of 761 “internet news services,” which together operated 743 websites, 563 apps, 119 forums, 23 blogs, 3 microblogs, 2285 public accounts, one instant messenger, and 13 live streaming services. In other words, hard news is off limits for internet services of these categories that operate without a news license. It remains to see how platform operators like WeChat and Sina Weibo work to enforce the rules.

Heightening oversight on online information could have merit when it comes to battling misinformation. The new regulation also calls on operators to set up mechanisms like a creator blacklist to root out fake news. But the regulation overall could have an adverse impact on freedom of expression in China, the International Federation of Journalists warned.

“The vaguely defined new rule comes at a time when ‘self-media’ has gained huge popularity in China and journalists have begun using such platforms to publish work which was axed by their organisations,” the IFJ said in a statement published on January 28.

#asia, #censorship, #china, #government, #tc, #wechat

China’s draft payments rules put Ant, Tencent on notice

A string of recent events in China’s payments industry suggests the duopoly comprising Ant Group and Tencent may be getting a shakeup.

Following the abrupt call-off of Ant’s public sale and a government directive to reform the firm’s business, the Chinese authorities sent another message this week signaling its plan to curb concentration in the flourishing digital payments industry.

The set of draft rules, designed to regulate non-bank payments and released by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) this week, said any non-bank payments processor with over one-third of the non-bank payments market or two companies with a combined half of the market could be subject to regulatory warnings from the anti-monopoly authority under the State Council.

Meanwhile, a single non-bank payments provider with over one half of the digital payments market or two companies with a combined two-thirds of the market could be investigated for whether they constitute a monopoly.

The difference between the two rules is nuanced here, with the second stipulation focusing on digital payments as opposed to non-bank payments in the first.

Furthermore, the rules did not specify how authorities measure an organization’s market share, say, whether the judgment is based on an entity’s total transaction value, its transaction volume, or other metrics.

Alipay processed over half of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market researcher iResearch, while Tencent handled nearly 40% of the payments in the same period.

 

As China heightens scrutiny over its payments giants, it’s also opening up the financial market to international players. In December, Goldman Sachs moved to take full ownership of its Chinese joint venture. This month, PayPal became the first foreign company with 100% control of a payments business in China after it bought out the remaining stake in its local payments partner Guofubao.

Industry experts told TechCrunch that PayPal won’t likely go after the domestic payments giants but may instead explore opportunities in cross-border payments, a market with established players like XTransfer, which was founded by a team of Ant veterans.

Ant and Tencent also face competition from other Chinese internet firms. Companies ranging from food delivery platform Meituan, e-commerce platforms Pinduoduo and JD.com, to TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance have introduced their own e-wallets, though none of them have posed an imminent threat to Alipay or WeChat Pay.

The comprehensive proposal from PBOC also defines how payments processors handle customer data. Non-bank payments services are to store certain user information and transaction history and cooperate with relevant authorities on data checks. Companies are also required to obtain user consent and make clear to customers how their data are collected and used, a rule that reflects China’s broader effort to clamp down on unscrupulous data collection.

#alibaba-group, #alipay, #ant-group, #asia, #bytedance, #china, #finance, #mobile-payments, #online-payments, #payments, #paypal, #state-council, #tc, #tencent, #wechat, #wechat-pay

WeChat advances e-commerce goals with $250B in transactions

WeChat continues to advance its shopping ambitions as the social networking app turns 10 years old. The Chinese messenger facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs,” third-party services that run on the super app that allow users to buy clothes, order food, hail taxis and more.

That is double the value of transactions on WeChat’s mini programs in 2019, the networking giant announced at its annual conference for business partners and ecosystem developers, which normally takes place in its home city of Guangzhou in southern China but was moved online this year due to the pandemic.

To compare, e-commerce upstart Pinduoduo, Alibaba’s archrival, saw total transactions of $214.7 billion in the third quarter.

WeChat introduced mini programs in early 2017 in a move some saw as a challenge to Apple’s App Store and has over time shaped the messenger into an online infrastructure that keeps people’s life running. It hasn’t recently disclosed how many third-party lite apps it houses, but by 2018 the number reached one million, half the size of the App Store at the time.

From Tencent’s strategic perspective, the growth in mini program-based transactions helps further the company’s goal to strengthen its fintech business, which counts digital payments as a major revenue driver.

A big proportion of WeChat’s mini programs are games, which the app said exceeded 500 million monthly users thanks to a boost in female and middle-aged users, as well as players residing in China’s Tier 3 cities, WeChat said.

The virtual conference also unveiled a set of other milestones from China’s biggest messaging app, which surpassed 1.2 billion monthly active users last year.

Among its monthly users, 500 million have tried the WeChat Search function. The Chinese internet is carved into several walled gardens controlled by titans like Tencent, Alibaba and ByteDance, which often block competitors from their services. When users search on WeChat, they are in effect retrieving information published on the messenger as well as Tencent’s allies like Sogou, Pinduoduo and Zhihu, rather than the open web.

WeChat said 240 million people have used its “payments score.” When the feature debuted back in 2019, there was speculation that it signaled WeChat’s entry into consumer credit finance and participation in the government’s social credit system. WeChat reiterated at this year’s event that the WeChat score does neither of that.

Like Ant’s Sesame Score, the rating system works more like a royalty program, “designed to build trust between merchants and users.” For instance, people who reach a certain score can waive deposits or delay payments when using merchant services on WeChat. The score, WeChat said, helped users save more than $30 billion in deposits a year.

WeChat’s enterprise version has surpassed 130 million active users. Its biggest rival, Dingtalk, operated by Alibaba, reached 155 million daily active users last March.

The one-day event concluded with the much-anticipated appearance of Allen Zhang, WeChat’s creator. Zhang went to great lengths to talk about WeChat’s nascent short-video feature, which is somewhat similar to Snap’s Stories. He didn’t disclose the performance of short videos because “the PR team doesn’t allow” him to, but said that “if we set a goal for ourselves, we will have to achieve it.”

Zhang also announced the WeChat team is weighing up an input tool for users. It’d be a tiny project given Tencent’s colossal size, but the project reflects Zhang’s belief in “privacy protection,” despite public skepticism about how WeChat handles user data.

“If we analyze [users’ chat history], we can bring great advertising revenue to the company. But we don’t do that, so WeChat cares a lot about user privacy,” asserted Zhang.

“But why do you still get ads [related to] what you have just said on WeChat? There are many other channels that process your information, not just WeChat. From there, our technical team said, ‘Why don’t we create an input tool ourselves?’”

#alibaba, #asia, #china, #dingtalk, #instant-messaging, #messaging-apps, #pinduoduo, #snap, #sogou, #tc, #tencent, #wechat

TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin launches an e-wallet

Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s affiliate Alipay have long dominated digital payments in China, but they have always faced new challengers. The latest entrant in online payments is Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version.

The short video app recently added “Douyin Pay” to its list of existing payment options, which have included Alipay and WeChat Pay.

“The set-up of Douyin Pay (Douyin Zhifu) is to supplement the existing major payment options, and to ultimately enhance user experience on Douyin,” a Douyin spokesperson said.

Payment is a natural step for Douyin, which has a growing e-commerce business. Users can be directed to a product link while watching a video of an influencer reviewing, say, a lipstick. Instead of the ubiquitous WeChat Pay and Alipay, they may opt for Douyin Pay one day, if the incentives are great enough.

Other internet giants, such as e-commerce giant JD.com and food delivery service Meituan, have also tried luring people to use their own payment methods, though the market duopoly is hard to break. All in all, Alipay and WeChat Pay handle about 90% of China’s electronic payments.

Like other internet firms, Douyin parent ByteDance snapped up a coveted payments license by acquiring a third-party payments firm. Last September, a company controlled by ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming bought out a payments solution provider called Wuhan Hezhong Yibao Technology Co. The license, in turn, allows Douyin, Toutiao and other ByteDance services to offer payment features.

Users can, for instance, receive a cash-filled electronic red packet from a Douyin campaign and deposit that cash to their bank accounts.

Douyin Pay

The rollout of Douyin Pay seems well-timed with the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday, a time when families and friends gift each other red packets. Over the past decade, WeChat has been popularizing electronic versions of these auspicious money-filled envelopes, which helped WeChat Pay take off in the early days.

Douyin inked a deal with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV to be its red envelope technology provider for the Spring Festival Gala, traditionally a major advertising event of the year, according to Chinese business news provider LatePost. Alibaba’s young rival Pinduoduo had a similar deal last year in an attempt to grow its own payments users.

#alipay, #asia, #bytedance, #cctv, #china, #chinese-new-year, #finance, #online-payments, #payments, #tc, #tencent, #tiktok, #wechat, #wechat-pay, #zhang-yiming

Signal and Telegram are also growing in China – for now

As fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies send millions of users in the West to Signal and Telegram, the two encrypted apps are also seeing a slight user uptick in China, where WeChat has long dominated and the government has a tight grip on online communication.

Following WhatsApp’s pop-up notification reminding users that it shares their data with its parent Facebook, people began fleeing to alternate encrypted platforms. Telegram added 25 million just between January 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal surged to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozens of countries, TechCrunch learned earlier.

The migration was accelerated when, on January 7, Elon Musk urged his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet that likely stoked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.

The growth of Telegram and Signal in China isn’t nearly as remarkable as their soaring popularity in regions where WhatsApp has been the mainstream chat app, but the uplift is a reminder that WeChat alternatives still exist in China in various capacities.

Signal amassed 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8 and 12, up 500% from the period between January 3 and 7, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. Telegram added 17,000 downloads during January 8-12, up 6% from the January 3-7 duration. WhatsApp’s growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.

Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has seen about 2.7 million total installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.

The fact that Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp are accessible in China might come as a surprise to some people. But China’s censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.

The situation for Android is trickier. Google services are largely blocked in China and Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal is available on these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messengers.

The next challenge is actually using these apps. The major chat apps all get slightly different treatment from Beijing’s censorship apparatus. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works in China without a VPN, though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn’t work at all without a VPN.

“Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain threshold of users at which point the authorities will try to block or disrupt the website or app,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization monitoring the Chinese internet that also runs Apple Censorship.

“Perhaps before this mass migration from WhatsApp, Signal did not have that many users in China. That might have changed over the last week in which case the authorities could be pondering restrictions for Signal,” Smith added.

To legally operate in China, companies must store their data within China and submit information to the authorities for security spot-checks, according to a cybersecurity law enacted in 2017. Apple, for instance, partners with a local cloud provider to store the data of its Chinese users.

The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction that Signal, Telegram, and other foreign apps have with the Chinese authorities. Signal said it never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when concerns grew over Beijing’s heightened controls over the former British colony.

The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China, according to Smith, will come from Apple, which is constantly under fire by investors and activists for submitting to the Chinese authorities.

In recent years, the American giant has stepped up app crackdown in China, zeroing in on services that grant Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple has also purged tens of thousands of unlicensed games in recent quarters after a years-long delay.

“Apple has a history of pre-emptively censoring apps that they believe the authorities would want censored,” Smith observed. “If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a request from the authorities, then Apple customers in China will be left with no secure messaging options.”

#apple, #asia, #beijing, #china, #encryption, #facebook, #firewall, #google-play-store, #government, #great-fire, #messenger, #tc, #telegram, #tencent, #vpn, #wechat, #whatsapp

China’s tech firms rush to deliver solutions for grocery shopping

Nearly all of China’s largest internet firms have established a presence in online grocery. Just this week, news arrived that Alibaba co-led the $196 million C3 funding round of Nice Tuan, the two-year-old grocery group-buying firm’s fourth round year to date.

People in China shop online for almost everything, including groceries. At first, grocery e-commerce appears to have caught on mainly among the digitally-savvy who have grown reliant on the convenience of e-commerce and don’t mind paying a bit more for delivery. Many elderly shoppers, on the other hand, still prefer visiting traditional wet markets where ingredients are generally cheaper.

Now tech companies in China are scrambling to capture grocery shoppers of all ages. A new business model that’s getting a lot of funding is that of Nice Tuan, the so-called community group buying.

In conventional grocery e-commerce, an intermediary platform like Alibaba normally connects individual shoppers to an array of merchants and offers doorstep delivery, which arrives normally within an hour in China.

A community group-buying, in comparison, relies on an army of neighborhood-based managers — often housewives looking for part-time work — to promote products amongst neighbors and tally their orders in group chats, normally through the popular WeChat messenger. The managers then place the group orders with suppliers and have the items delivered to pick-up spots in the community, such as a local convenience store.

It’s not uncommon to see piles of grocery bags at corner stores wating to be fetched these days, and the model has inspired overseas Chinese entrepreneurs to follow suit in America.

Even in China where e-commerce is ubiquitous, the majority of grocery shopping still happens offline. That’s changing quickly. The fledgling area of grocery group-buying is growing at over 100% year-over-year in 2020 and expected to reach 72 billion yuan ($11 billion) in market size, according to research firm iiMedia.

It sounds as if grocery group-buying and self-pickup is a step back in a world where doorstep convenience is the norm. But the model has its appeal. Texting orders in a group chat is in a way more accessible for the elderly, who may find Chinese e-commerce apps, often overlaid with busy buttons and tricky sales rules, unfriendly. With bulk orders, sales managers might get better bargains from suppliers. If a group-buying company is ambitious, it can always add last-mile delivery to its offering.

Chinese tech giants are clearly bullish about online grocery and diversifying their portfolios to make sure they have a skin in the game. Tencent is an investor in Xingsheng Youxuan, Nice Tuan’s major competitor. Food delivery service Meituan has its own grocery arm, offering both the traditional digital grocer as well as the WeChat-based group-buy model. E-commerce upstart Pinduoduo similarly supports grocery group purchases. Alibaba itself already operates the Hema supermarket, which operates both online and offline markets.

#alibaba, #alibaba-group, #asia, #china, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #food, #funding, #grocery-store, #group-buying, #meituan-dianping, #online-grocery, #pinduoduo, #tc, #tencent, #wechat

The race to be China’s top fintech platform: Ant vs Tencent

As Ant Group seizes the world’s attention with its record initial public offering, which was abruptly called off by Beijing, investors and analysts are revisiting Tencent’s fintech interests, recognized as Ant’s archrival in China.

It’s somewhat complicated to do this, not least because they are sprawled across a number of Tencent properties and, unlike Ant, don’t go by a single brand or operational structure — at least, not one that is obvious to the outside world.

However, when you tease out Tencent’s fintech activity across its wider footprint — from direct operations like WeChat Pay through to its sizeable strategic investments and third-party marketplaces — you have something comparable in size to Ant, and in some services even bigger.

Hidden business

Ant refuted the comparison with Tencent or anyone else. In a reply to China’s securities regulator in September, the Jack Ma-controlled, Alibaba-backed fintech giant said it is “not comparable” to WeChat Pay, the fintech tool inside WeChat, Tencent’s flagship messenger.

“In the space of digital payments and merchant service, there are many players around the world, including Tencent’s WeChat Pay. But the payments services offered by these companies are different from our digital payments and merchant services. They are not comparable. In terms of digital finance, our way of working with and serving financial institutions, as well as our revenue model, are novel and do not have a counterpart,” the company noted in a somewhat hubristic reply.

There’s no denying that Ant is a pioneer in expanding financial inclusion in China, where millions remain outside the formal banking system. But Tencent has played catch-up in digital finance and made major headway, especially in electronic payments.

Both companies ventured into fintech by first offering consumers a way to pay digitally, though the brands “Alipay” and “WeChat Pay” fail to reflect the breadth of services touted by the platforms today. Alipay, Ant’s flagship app, is now a comprehensive marketplace selling Ant’s in-house products and myriad third-party ones like micro-loans and insurance. The app, like WeChat Pay, also facilitates a growing list of public services, letting users see their taxes, pay utility bills, book a hospital visit and more.

Screenshots of the Alipay app. Source: iOS App Store 

Tencent, on the other hand, embeds its financial services inside the payment features of WeChat (WeChat Pay) and the giant’s other popular chat app, QQ. It has thus been historically difficult to make out how much Tencent earns from fintech, something the giant doesn’t disclose in its earnings reports. This is reflective of Tencent’s “horse racing” internal competition, in which departments and teams often rival fiercely against each other rather than actively collaborate.

Screenshots of WeChat Pay inside Tencent’s WeChat messenger

As such, we have pulled together estimates of Tencent’s fintech businesses ourselves using a mix of quarterly reports and third-party research — a mark of how un-transparent some of this really is — but it begs some interesting questions. Will (should?) Tencent at some point follow in Alibaba’s footsteps to bring its own fintech operations under one umbrella?

User number

In terms of user size, the rivals are going neck and neck.

The Alipay app recorded 711 monthly active users and 80 million monthly merchants in June. Among its 1 billion annual users, 729 million had transacted in at least one “financial service” through the platform. As in the PayPal-eBay relationship, Alipay benefits tremendously by being the default payments processor for Alibaba marketplaces like Taobao.

As of 2019, more than 800 million users and 50 million merchants used WeChat to pay monthly, a big chunk of the 1.2 billion active user base of the messenger. It’s unclear how many people tried Tencent’s other fintech products, though the firm did say about 200 million people used its wealth management service in 2019.

Revenue

Ant reported a total of 121 billion yuan or $17 billion in revenue last year, nearly doubling its sum from 2017 and putting it on par with PayPal at $17.8 billion.

In 2019, Tencent generated 101 billion yuan of revenue from its “fintech and business services. The segment mainly consisted of fintech and cloud products, industry analysts told TechCrunch. With its cloud unit finishing the year at 17 billion yuan in revenue, we can venture to estimate that Tencent’s fintech products earned roughly or no more than 84 billion yuan ($12 billion), from the period — paled by Ant’s figure, but not bad for a relative latecomer.

The sheer size of the fintech giants has made them highly attractive targets of regulation. Increasingly, Ant is downplaying its “financial” angle and billing itself as a “technology” ally for traditional institutions rather than a challenger. These days, Alipay relies less on selling proprietary financial products and bills itself as an intermediary helping state banks, wealth managers and insurers to reach customers. In return for facilitating the process, Ant charges administrative fees from transactions on the platform.

Now, let’s turn to the rivals’ four main business focuses: payments, microloans, wealth management and insurance.

Ant vs. Tencent’s fintech businesses. Sources for the figures are companies’ quarterly reports, third-party research and TechCrunch estimates.

Digital payments

In the year ended June, Alipay processed a whopping 118 trillion yuan in payment transactions in China. That’s about $17 trillion and dwarfs the $172 billion that PayPal handled in 2019.

Tencent doesn’t disclose its payments transaction volume, but data from third-party research firms offer a hint of its scale. The industry consensus is that the two collectively control over 90% of China’s trillion-dollar electronic payments market where Alipay enjoys a slight lead.

Alipay processed 55.4% of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market research firm iResearch, while another researcher Analysys said the firm’s share was 48.44% in the period. In comparison, Tenpay (the brand assigned to the company-wide infrastructure that powers WeChat Pay and the less-significant QQ Wallet, yet another name to confuse people) trailed behind at 38.8%, per iResearch data, and 34% according to Analysys.

At the end of the day, the two services have distinct user scenarios. The fact that WeChat Pay lies inside a messenger makes it a tool for social, often small, payments, such as splitting bills and exchanging lucky money, a custom in China. Alipay, on the other hand, is associated with online shopping.

That’s changing as Tencent tries to increase its ticket size through alliances. It’s tied WeChat Pay to portfolio e-commerce companies like JD.com, Pinduoduo and Meituan — all Alibaba’s competitors.

Third-party payments were once an incredibly profitable business. Platforms used to be able to hold customer reserve funds from which they generated handsome interests. That lucrative scheme came to a stop when Chinese regulators demanded non-bank payments providers to place 100% of customer deposit funds under a centralized, interest-free account last year. What’s left for payment processors to earn are limited fees charged from merchants.

Payments still account for the bulk of Ant’s revenues — 43%, or a total of 51.9 billion yuan ($7.6 billion) in 2019, but the percentage was down from 55% in 2017, a sign of the giant’s diversifying business.

Microlending

Ant has become the go-to lender for shoppers and small businesses in a country where millions aren’t qualified for bank-issued credit cards. The firm had worked with about 100 banks, doling out 1.7 trillion yuan ($250 billion) of consumer loans and 400 billion yuan ($58 billion) of small business loans in the year ended June. That amounted to 41.9 billion yuan or 34.7% of Ant’s annual revenue.

The size of Tencent’s loan business is harder to gauge. What we do know is that Weilidai, the microloan product sold through WeChat, had issued an aggregate of 3.7 trillion yuan ($540 billion) to 28 million customers between its launch in 2015 and 2019, according to a report from WeBank, the Tencent-backed private bank that provides the WeChat-based loan.

Wealth management

As of June, Ant had 4.1 trillion yuan ($600 billion) assets under management, making it one of the world’s biggest money-market funds. Working with 170 partner asset managers, the segment brought in about 17 billion yuan or 14% of total revenue in 2019.

Tencent said its wealth management platform accumulated assets of over 600 billion yuan in 2018 and grew by 50% year-over-year in 2019. That should put its AUM in 2019 at around 900 billion yuan ($131 billion).

Insurance

Last but not least, both giants have made big pushes into consumer insurance. Besides featuring third-party plans, Alipay introduced a new way to insure customers: mutual aid. The novel scheme, which is not regulated as an insurance product in China, is free to sign up and does not charge any premium or upfront payment. Users pay small monthly fees that are pooled to pay for claims of critical illnesses.

Insurance premiums and mutual aid contributions on Ant’s platform reached 52 billion yuan, or $7.6 billion, in the year ended June. Working with about 90 partner insurers in China, the segment contributed nearly 9 billion yuan, or 7.4%, of the firm’s annual revenue. More than 570 million Alipay users participated in at least one insurance program in the year ended June.

Tencent, on the other hand, taps partners in its relatively uncharted territory. Its insurance strategy includes in-house platform WeSure that works like a middleman between insurers and consumers, and Tencent-backed Waterdrop, which provides both traditional insurances and a rival to Ant’s mutual aid product Xianghubao.

In the first half of 2020, WeSure, Tencent’s main insurance operation that sells through WeChat, paid out a total of 290 million yuan ($42.4 million), it announced. The unit does not disclose its amount of premiums or revenues, but we can find clues in other figures. Twenty-five million people used WeShare services in 2019 and the average premium amount per user was over 1,000 yuan ($151). That is, WeShare generated no more than 25 billion yuan, or $3.78 billion, in premium that year because the user figure also accounts for a good number of premium-free users.

*

Moving forward, it remains unclear whether Tencent will restructure its fintech operations in a more cohesive and collaborative way. As they expand, will investors and regulators demand that? And what opportunities are there for others to compete in a space dominated by two huge players?

One thing is for sure: Tencent will need to tread more carefully on regulatory issues. Ant’s achievement is a win for entrepreneurs looking to “disrupt” China’s financial sector, but its halted IPO, which is tied to regulatory issues and reportedly Jack Ma’s hubris, also sounds an alarm to contenders that policymaking in China can be capricious.

#alibaba, #ant-financial, #ant-group, #asia, #china, #finance, #fundings-exits, #initial-public-offering, #tc, #tencent, #wechat

TikTok files for injunction against pending Trump app ban

TikTok’s fight with the Trump administration doesn’t yet appear to be over, regardless of what the deal that was signed between its parent company ByteDance and Oracle says over the weekend.

Earlier today, the company filed a motion to stop the Commerce Department from enforcing a ban against the popular social app. That ban was supposed to come into place on Sunday, but after the signing of the ByteDance/Oracle deal, it was delayed by a week, with additional delays expected as the deal closes in the coming weeks.

Now though, the company seems to be taking more aggressive action to stop the government. It’s perhaps looking at the plight of another app, WeChat, whose users successfully argued for an injunction in San Francisco federal court this weekend that blocked the app from being banned on Sunday by the Commerce Department. Unlike in WeChat’s case, where the lawsuit was brought by American citizens rather than its owner Tencent, TikTok itself filed its lawsuit against President Trump and the government, originally filing its lawsuit on September 18th, according to court records.

In its filing for an injunction, the company says that it has “made extraordinary efforts to try to satisfy the government’s ever-shifting demands and purported national security concerns, including through changes in the ownership and structure of [its] business, and [we] are continuing to do so.”

In particular, the company noted that the damage of the ban could be significant, arguing that “hundreds of millions of Americans who have not yet downloaded TikTok will be shut out … six weeks before a national election.” The company argues that President Trump and the Commerce Department exceeded its authority under existing legislation to enforce a ban, which mirror arguments made in the WeChat case this weekend.

It’s just the latest challenge in a sprawling situation that changes by the hour. Overnight, my colleague Rita Liao noted that China itself may not even approve the ByteDance/Oracle deal, calling it “extortion” and putting the whole framework for TikTok moving forward in doubt.

#apps, #asia, #bytedance, #government, #policy, #president-trump, #tencent-holdings, #tiktok, #wechat

TikTok, WeChat and the growing digital divide between the U.S. and China

Over the past decade, the dynamic between Chinese and United States tech companies has undergone dramatic shifts. Once seen as a promising market for American companies, that narrative flipped as China’s tech innovation and investment power became increasingly evident, and the expanding reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s cybersecurity regulations fueled concerns about data privacy. For years, however, there still seemed to be room for a flow of ideas between the two countries. But that promise has eroded, against the backdrop of the tariff wars and, most recently, the Trump administration’s executive orders against TikTok and WeChat.

The U.S. Commerce Department was set to enforce the shutdown of TikTok and WeChat in the United States last weekend, but both apps got reprieves. In WeChat’s case, a U.S. district court judge issued a temporary stay against the ban, while TikTok owner ByteDance is in the process of finalizing a complicated deal with Oracle.

The TikTok and WeChat imbroglios underline how much America’s perception of Chinese tech has evolved. Not only is TikTok the first consumer app by a Chinese company to gain a major foothold in the United States, but it’s also had a significant impact on popular culture there. This would have been almost unimaginable just ten, or even five, years ago.

China as a target for expansion

For a long time, China, with its population of 1.4 billion people, was seen as a lucrative market by many foreign tech companies, even as government censorship began to expand. In 2003, China’s Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield Project, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, the apparatus that controls what overseas sites and apps Chinese internet users have access to. At first the Great Firewall mainly targeted access to Chinese-language sites with anti-Chinese Communist Party content. Then it began blocking more services.

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

Even as the Communist Party’s online censorship became more stringent, many American internet companies were still keen to expand into China. Perhaps the most prominent example from that era is Google, which added Chinese support to Google.com in 2000.

Though access to the search engine was spotty (according to a 2010 timeline from the Financial Times, this may have been because of “extensive filtering” by China’s licensed internet service providers) and it was briefly blocked in 2002, Google continued launching new services targeted to users in China, including a simplified Chinese language version of Google News.

Then in 2005, the company announced plans to set up a research and development center in China. The next year, it officially launched Google.cn. In order to do so, Google agreed to exclude search results on sensitive political topics, causing controversy.

Despite its concessions to the Chinese government, Google’s relationship with China began deteriorating, foreshadowing what other foreign tech companies, particularly those offering online services, would deal with when they tried to enter China. After being blocked on and off, access to YouTube was completely cut off in 2009 after footage was uploaded that appeared to show the brutal beatings of Tibetan protestors in Lhasa. That year, China also blocked access to Facebook and Twitter.

In January 2010, Google announced it was no longer willing to censor searches in China and would withdraw from the country if necessary. It also began redirecting all search queries on Google.cn to Google.com.hk.

But the company continued its R&D operations there and maintained a sales team. (In 2018, an investigation by The Intercept found that Google had started to work on a censored search engine for China again, code-named “Project Dragonfly”). Other big U.S. tech companies also continued courting China, even though their services were blocked there.

For example, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made several trips to China in the mid-2010s, including a 2015 visit to Tsinghua University, a leading research university. Zuckerberg had joined the university’s board the previous year, and delivered several public talks in Mandarin. Speculation mostly focused on Facebook’s efforts to get a version of its service into China, but China-based companies were, and continue to be, one of Facebook’s most important sources of advertising revenue.

Chinese government policies designed to help domestic companies become more competitive also began to have an impact and by 2015, many American tech firms needed to find a local partner to enter China. The narrative that China needed American tech innovation began to turn on its head.

A shifting dynamic

Since Google Play was also blocked in China, that led the way for the rise of third-party Android app stores, including Chinese internet giant Tencent’s My App.

But Tencent’s most influential product is WeChat, the messenger that launched in 2011. Two years later, Tencent added mobile payments by integrating it with TenPay. In less than five years, WeChat became a vital part of daily life for hundreds of millions of users in China. WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, its main competitor, have revolutionized payments in China, where about one-third of consumer payments are now cashless, according to research by think tank CGAP.

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

BEIJING, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In 2017, Wechat launched “mini-programs,” that allows developers to create “apps within an app” that run on WeChat. The program took off quickly, and within less than two years, Tencent said it had reached one million mini-programs and 200 million daily users. Even Google quietly launched its own mini-program in 2018.

Despite its ubiquity in China, WeChat’s international presence is relatively small, especially when compared to other messengers like WhatsApp. WeChat claims more than one billion monthly active users in total, but only an estimated 100 million to 200 million are international users. Many are members of the Chinese diaspora who use it to keep in touch with family and associates in mainland China since many other popular messengers, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Line, are blocked there.

In the meantime, another company was gaining ascendancy, and would eventually succeed where Tencent hadn’t.

Founded in 2012 by Microsoft veteran Zhang Yiming, ByteDance had its own early run-ins with the Chinese government. The first app it launched, a social media platform called Neihan Duanzi that reached 200 million users by 2017, was shut down the next year after the National Radio and Television Administration accused it of hosting inappropriate content. Despite that early setback, ByteDance continued to grow, releasing apps like Toutiao, one of China’s top news aggregators.

But the product it is best known for launched in 2016. Called Douyin in China, ByteDance always planned to expand the short video-sharing app overseas. In an interview with Chinese tech news site 36Kr, Zhang said, “China is home to only one-fifth of the world’s internet users. If we don’t expand globally, we are bound to lose to our peers eyeing the rest of the world” — both echoing and contravening the viewpoint of U.S. internet companies that had seen China as a crucial market.

TikTok, the international version of Douyin, was launched in 2017. That year, ByteDance also bought Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app popular with teens, in a deal worth between $800 million to $1 billion. ByteDance merged Musical.ly with TikTok, consolidating their audiences.

By early 2019, TikTok had become popular among teens and people in their early 20s, though many older people still struggled to understand its appeal. But as TikTok was turning into a mainstay of Gen Z culture, it also began to face scrutiny by the U.S. government. In February 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for violating children’s privacy laws.

Then a few months later, the U.S. government reportedly began a national security review of TikTok, marking the first in a chain of events that led to Trump’s August executive order against the company, and ByteDance’s new, but confusing, agreement with “trusted technology partner” Oracle.

The impact of China’s 2017 cybersecurity law

The United States is not the only country where TikTok has been deemed a national security threat. In June, it was among 59 apps developed by Chinese companies banned in India for threatening the country’s “national security and defence.” It’s also under investigation by French data security watchdog CNIL over how it handles user data.

While some cybersecurity experts believe that TikTok’s data collection practices are similar to other social media apps that depend on targeted ads for revenue, the heart of the issue is a Chinese law, implemented in June 2017, that requires companies to comply with government requests for data stored in China. ByteDance has insisted repeatedly it would resist attempts by the Chinese government to access U.S. users’ data, which it says is stored in the United States and Singapore.

“Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law,” TikTok wrote in a October 2019 statement. “Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.”

In the same post, TikTok also addressed concerns that it censors content, including videos about the Hong Kong protests and China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim groups. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the company said.

WeChat and TikTok’s uncertain future in the U.S.

But as a Chinese company, ByteDance is ultimately still beholden to Chinese laws. Earlier this week, ByteDance said it will retain an 80% stake in TikTok, after selling a total of 20% to Oracle and Walmart. Then Oracle executive vice president Ken Glueck said that Oracle and Walmart would make their investment upon the creation of a new entity called TikTok Global. He added that ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.

This creates more questions, but doesn’t answer the most pressing one: how close will the U.S. version of TikTok remain to ByteDance, and will it still be subject to the Chinese cybersecurity regulations that cause so much concern?

Around the same time that ByteDance’s proposed deal with Oracle and Walmart was announced, a U.S. district court judge temporarily stayed the nationwide ban on WeChat, as part of a case brought against the U.S. government by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in America. In her opinion, Judge Laurel Beeler wrote, “while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national-security concerns—it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns.”

On its site, the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said it believes Trump’s August 6 executive order against WeChat “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act.” Furthermore, the group argued that a WeChat ban would “severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S.” who use WeChat to talk to family, friends and business associates in China.

While WeChat is heavily censored, users have often found ingenious ways to bypass bans on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. For example, people used emojis, PDFs and fictional languages like Klingon to share an interview with Ai Fen, the director of Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department and one of the first whistleblowers to sound the alarm about COVID-19 even as the government attempted to stifle information about the disease.

The growing divide

The U.S. government’s actions against TikTok and WeChat are taking place against an increasingly fraught political landscape. Huawei and ZTE were first identified as potential threats to U.S. national security in a 2012 bipartisan House committee report, but legal actions against Huawei, one of the world’s biggest telecom equipment suppliers, escalated under the Trump administration. These include criminal charges brought against Huawei by the Department of Justice, and the arrest and indictment of chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The U.S. government’s actions in the name of national security doesn’t just affect the Chinese government or China’s biggest companies. It also impacts individuals, as in the case of increasingly stringent visa restrictions for Chinese students.

At the same time, the Great Firewall has become more restrictive under President Xi Jinping’s regime and China’s cybersecurity laws are becoming increasingly invasive, granting the government even more access to citizens’ data. Increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology has been used to monitor Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, and a crackdown on VPN services that began escalating in 2017 is making it harder for people in China to circumvent the Great Firewall.

When compared to these social issues, the future of a video-sharing app might seem relatively minor. But it underscores one of the most unsettling developments in the relationship between U.S. and China over the past ten years.

In a prescient 2016 Washington Post article titled “America wants to believe China can’t innovate. Tech tells a different story,” Emily Rauhala wrote “China’s tech scene is flourishing in a parallel universe.” TikTok’s deep cultural impact gave a glimpse of what is possible when two parallel universes connect. Along with geopolitical tensions, the furore over TikTok and WeChat uncovers something else: that the exchange of ideas and information between people in two of the world’s most powerful countries is becoming increasingly restricted due to circumstances beyond their control.

#apps, #bytedance, #china, #policy, #tc, #tencent, #tiktok, #united-states, #wechat

Everything we know so far about Oracle not actually buying TikTok

A casually dressed young woman shrugs while holding the logos of two competing companies.

Enlarge / ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

It was a weird weekend to end a weird summer for one of the country’s most poular social media apps, TikTok. First, in August, the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok unless it found a US buyer. Then last weekend, one-time dark horse Oracle emerged victorious in a federally mandated contest to acquire TikTok. Except, it turns out, Oracle isn’t actually acquiring TikTok at all—and Oracle and TikTok’s current parent company, ByteDance, disagree on who is going to be in charge.

If you’re confused, you’re in good company. Here’s our attempt to lay out everything we know about TikTok, Oracle, and their mysterious deal so far.

What is TikTok? Who owns it?

TikTok is an extremely popular short-form video app used worldwide. The app appeared in its current incarnation after its parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, acquired US startup Musical.ly in 2017 and integrated it with its existing TikTok product under the TikTok name.

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#bans, #china, #explainers, #policy, #tiktok, #trade-war, #trump, #trump-administration, #wechat, #white-house

Trump administration’s WeChat ban is blocked by U.S. district court

A few days ago, the U.S. Commerce Department published a series of rules that aimed to block the downloading of TikTok and WeChat by American users, following an executive order signed by President Trump back in August. TikTok got a last minute reprieve yesterday following its signing of an investment and cloud services deal with Oracle and Walmart, which delayed the implementation of its download ban at least for a week. However, WeChat was effectively going to be shut down today, with a ban on downloads and a ban on any services that powered the service.

Now, there is a new wrinkle in the battle over the future of the social app, which is widely used in Chinese-speaking communities and is owned by China-based Tencent. A district court judge in San Francisco has temporarily stayed the nationwide ban, following a lawsuit of WeChat users arguing that the ban undermined the free speech rights of American citizens. That court case, U.S. WeChat Users Alliance v. Trump, will be allowed to proceed.

In her short opinion published yesterday, United States magistrate judge Laurel Beeler, argued that the government’s case showed weaknesses on First Amendment grounds, its authority to act within existing legislation to allow the government to control industry, and its overall vagueness compared to the damage a ban would likely have on the Chinese-speaking community in the United States.

From her opinion:

Certainly the government’s overarching national-security interest is significant. But on this record — while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national- security concerns — it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns. And, as the plaintiffs point out, there are obvious alternatives to a complete ban, such as barring WeChat from government devices, as Australia has done, or taking other steps to address data security.

Given the likelihood of a lawsuit proceeding and the immediate damage a ban would have if implemented, the judge initiated a nationwide injunction against implementation of the Commerce Department’s order to ban the app.

Commerce will have a chance to respond to this development, and whether it chooses to edit its order, pursue other avenues through the courts, or just rescind the order entirely, we will see in the coming days.

#apps, #government, #oracle, #policy, #tencent-holdings, #tiktok, #walmart, #wechat

Court blocks Trump’s WeChat ban from taking effect today

There both is and is not a ban in effect on WeChat.

Enlarge / There both is and is not a ban in effect on WeChat. (credit: Budrul Chukrut | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images)

A federal judge in California put a temporary halt on the White House’s efforts to ban WeChat inside the United States, preventing that ban from going into effect at midnight tonight.

“The plaintiffs have shown serious questions going to the merits of their First Amendment Claim,” US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler wrote in her ruling (PDF) early this morning.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of WeChat users inside the US. The group, organized as the US WeChat Users Alliance, argued in their complaint that the ban violated their First and Fifth Amendment rights as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. The group also argues that the law cited in the executive order banning WeChat does not in fact give President Donald Trump the authority claimed in the order.

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#bytedance, #courts, #policy, #rulings, #tencent, #tiktok, #trump, #wechat, #white-house

Trump admin orders TikTok, WeChat gone from app stores on Sunday

If the Trump administration has its way, these logos will be scarce inside the US in a few days.

Enlarge / If the Trump administration has its way, these logos will be scarce inside the US in a few days. (credit: Ivan Abreu | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

Consumers inside the US will no longer be allowed to download TikTok or WeChat from any US app store after Sunday, the Trump administration announced today.

Any “provision of service to distribute or maintain” the mobile applications or their “constituent code” is prohibited beginning after 11:59pm ET September 20, the Department of Commerce said this morning. That means Google Play and Apple’s App Store will have to yank their listings for the apps, and users who already have one or both apps will not be able to download updates or patches for them.

“At the President’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of US laws and regulations,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a written statement.

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#bans, #policy, #tiktok, #trump, #wechat, #white-house

TikTok and WeChat will be banned in the U.S. from Sunday

The Commerce Department announced this morning that it will require mobile app stores to remove popular social media apps TikTok and WeChat. New users will not be able to download these apps, and while existing users will still be able to use their existing apps installed on their phones, new updates will not be allowed to be installed. In addition, the Commerce Department is also banning any payment transactions through WeChat within the United States.

The bans will go into force Sunday, September 20.

Those decisions are in line with an executive order signed by President Trump on August 6, which put ByteDance and Tencent, the respective owners of TikTok and WeChat, on notice of the government’s intention to block access to their products over purported concerns about national security.

That executive order precipitated the last few weeks of feverish dealmaking to avoid a shutdown of TikTok, discussions that remain on-going and are not finalized. As of today, Oracle and what looks like Walmart are still negotiating with the White House, Treasury Department, and ByteDance to come to a deal that will be acceptable to the president. China also has authority to approve a sale of TikTok.

Over the last few weeks, the administration has promoted a policy known as “Clean Network” designed to eliminate foreign interference in applications and cloud infrastructure that powers American technology. That policy calls for the removal of certain apps, data sovereignty to onshore American user data to the United States, mobile network infrastructure built from “clean” equipment, and a host of other measures to create a “clean” computing environment for U.S. citizens. While those policies are generally written broadly, their clear target has been China, based on speeches from administration officials.

TikTok and WeChat are not the only app removals announced over night. In India, one of the most popular payment apps in the country — Paytm — has been removed from Google’s Play Store for “repeat policy violations.” The app has tens of millions of monthly users. In late June, the country also announced a list of 59 apps developed by Chinese companies that would be banned, including TikTok.

Such national fights over the future of technology have increasingly come to a head as tech drives a larger segment of the global economy and increasingly becomes intertwined with competing national interests.

#apps, #bytedance, #government, #policy, #tencent-holdings, #tiktok, #wechat

Impending WeChat ban won’t actually ban users from WeChat, DOJ says

There's no ban on WeChat in the US right now, the DOJ says, which is true—but that's supposed to change, somehow, in the immediate future, and nobody knows how.

Enlarge / There’s no ban on WeChat in the US right now, the DOJ says, which is true—but that’s supposed to change, somehow, in the immediate future, and nobody knows how. (credit: Budrul Chukrut | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images)

Three days before a ban on the use of China-owned app WeChat in the United States is supposed to take effect, the Trump administration still hasn’t said what specifically is being banned—only that individuals will not be penalized for using the app, despite the alleged threat it presents to national security.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross does “not intend to take actions that would target persons or groups whose only connection with WeChat is their use or downloading of the app to convey personal or business information between users, or otherwise define the relevant transactions in such a way that would impose criminal or civil liability on such users,” attorneys for the Department of Justice wrote in a court filing (PDF).

Users of WeChat may find services “directly or indirectly impaired” by whatever measures the administration does end up imposing, the filing continued, but “use and downloading of the app for this limited purpose will not be a defined transaction.”

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#bans, #china, #executive-orders, #keystone-cops, #policy, #wechat

Justice Department says WeChat users won’t be penalized under Trump’s executive order

In a Wednesday filing in federal court, the United States government said that users who use or download WeChat “to convey personal or business information” will not be subject to penalties under President Donald Trump’s executive order banning transactions with the Tencent-owned messaging app.

Trump issued the executive order against WeChat on August 6, the same day he issued a similar one banning transactions with ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, claiming national security concerns. Both orders caused confusion because they are set to go into effect 45 days after being issued, but said that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until then.

With that deadline now looming at the end of this week, WeChat users in America are still uncertain about the app’s future. Though WeChat is the top messaging app by far in China, where it also serves as an essential conduit for payments and other services, the U.S. version of the app has relatively limited features. It is used by Chinese-Americans, and other members of the Chinese disapora in the U.S., to keep in touch with their family and other people in China. With other popular messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, banned in China, WeChat is often the most direct communication channel available to them.

The U.S. government’s filing (embedded below) was made as part of a request for a preliminary injunction against the executive order brought by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a non-profit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in the U.S. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

In it, attorneys from the Justice Department said the U.S. Commerce Department is continuing to review transactions and will clarify which ones are affected by Sept. 20, but “we can provide assurances that [Secretary Ross] does not intend to take actions that would target persons or groups whose only connection to WeChat is their use or downloading of the app to convey personal or business information between users, or otherwise define the relevant transaction in such a way that would impose criminal or civil liability on such users.”

But in a response (also embedded below), the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said that the Department of Justice’s filing instead demonstrates why a preliminary injunction is necessary. “Having first failed to articulate any actual national security concerns, the administration’s latest ‘assurances’ that users can keep using WeChat, and exchange their personal and business information, only further illustrates the hollowness and pre-textual nature of the Defendants’ ‘national security rationales.’”

The U.S. WeChat Users Alliance filed for the injunction on August 21. In an open letter published on its site, it said a complete ban of WeChat “will severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S. They will have a difficult time talking to family relatives and friends back in China. Countless people or businesses who use WeChat to develop and contact customers will also suffer significant economic losses.”

The group also believes that the executive order “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution,” and the Administrative Procedure Act.

#apps, #china, #department-of-justice, #messaging, #policy, #tc, #tencent, #u-s-government, #wechat

India bans PUBG and over 100 additional Chinese apps

India has banned more than 100 additional apps with linkage to China including popular mobile game PUBG citing cybersecurity concerns as geopolitical tension between the two neighboring nations continues to rise.

On Wednesday, India’s IT Ministry ordered to ban 118 apps that it said were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” The move will help “safeguard the interests of crores (tens of millions) of Indian mobile and internet users. This decision is a targeted move to ensure safety, security, and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace,” the ministry said.

The move comes months after New Delhi banned 59 Chinese apps including TikTok, which counted India as its biggest international market, UC Browser, and UC News.

Among the new apps that have been banned today include Baidu, WeChat Work, Tencent Weiyun, Rise of Kingdoms, APUS Launcher, Tencent Weiyun, VPN for TikTok, Mobile Taobao, Youko, Sina News, CamCard, as well as a miniature version of PUBG. (You can see the full list here.)

PUBG is by far the most popular app among the newly banned apps. It had more than 40 million monthly active users in India, according to one of the top mobile insight firms.

“The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside of India,” the ministry said in a statement. “There has been a strong chorus in the public space to take strict action against apps that harm India’s sovereignty as well as the privacy of our citizens.”

Tension between the world’s two most populous nations escalated when more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in the Himalayas in June. Ever since, “Boycott China” — and variations of it — has been trending on Twitter in India as a growing number of people posted videos demonstrating destruction of Chinese-made smartphones, TVs and other products.

In April, India also made a change to its foreign investment policy that requires Chinese investors — who have ploughed billions of dollars into Indian startups in recent years — to take approval from New Delhi. The move has significantly reduced Chinese investors’ presence in Indian startups’ deal flows in the months since.

Last month, Alibaba Group