China on the net: they do things differently here

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So here I am, drinking my Starbucks vanilla latte surrounded by people tapping away on their laptops courtesy of T-mobile WiFi, soundtracked by the beeps of SMS messages being received on the latest Nokia handsets.

No surprise there, you might think – apart from the fact that I’m in Starbucks in Shanghai. Nine months ago I hadn’t even explored Chinatown in London’s Soho, much less given any thought to the explosion taking place out in The People’s Republic of China.

But all that changed after a spontaneous decision to get a ticket and visa from Hong Kong on my “midlife-crisis-10-years-too-early” round the world tour, which landed me in Shanghai’s Pudong airport on my 31st Birthday.

Fast forward to today, and here I am living in Shanghai having decided to make the move and be part of what seems like dotcom Part II, turbo-charged.

With more than 100m people online, China is the 2nd largest nation in the world in terms of internet users and that’s still less than 10 per cent of the population. Combine that with being world leaders in mobile usage, with 363m owning phones and still growing by millions every month, and you can start to see why I, along with many other westerners, are arriving in plane-loads every week.

The internet scene here is quite different from that in Europe and the US.

Firstly, the 100m plus users are not using the internet to do their grocery shopping, banking or book holidays.

Instead they’re busy chatting on QQ or one of four other local instant messaging applications; surfing Chinese community sites; or looking at the websites of global brands such as Louis Vuitton and BMW. Aspiration is big, and the web is the shop window.

That’s not to say that e-commerce does not exist – it does – just in a different format and dealing in very different goods. Auction sites eBay and Taobao are huge, with everything from French cosmetics to fake-brand cigarettes sold in their thousands every day.

It’s amazing how swiftly the Chinese have adapted to the technology. Unlike the west, they never had to put up with clunky modems or mobile phones the size of bricks.

What the future holds for the 1.3bn population is what’s being watched closely from Boston to Beijing.Will this be the market where it all happens on the web in the next 10 years? Will Google and Amazon be household names in rural China, or will it be home-grown and state supported talent such as Baidu and AliBaba that continue to run the show?

Whatever happens in the long run, the one thing that is obvious is that the strategies used back home will not necessarily work here. China has too much pride, character and history to follow any path that the west tries to impose.

For me as an individual and entrepreneur, it’s fascinating living in Shanghai and stuck in the middle of what’s being described as the next California Gold Rush, the second coming of the 1990s dotcom boom.

As I finish off my latte, I glance outside and see old Mr Li, a rag-and-bone man whose bicycle and ringing bell go round Shanghai every day collecting unwanted items. Part of me wonders whether Mr Li will live long enough to be connected on the web, and part of me wonders whether he is already online and selling his goods via his Taobao store and his QQ account.

I wouldn’t bet against the latter.

Shakil Khan is based in Shanghai and is the author of www.chinawhite.net

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