If there is anything Chinese internet users are as passionate about as stealing cabbages in social games such as Happy Farm, it is the debate about who came up with the idea for such games in the first place.
“It was not [US company] Zynga who invented farm games – those were around in China first,” says Li Shanyou, the founder of Ku6, one of China’s leading internet video sites, who now heads the centre for entrepreneurship and investment at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.
Although the incessant cloning of foreign internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Groupon in China have given Chinese entrepreneurs a bad name as mere copycats, there are cases where China was early or first in developing certain internet products or business models.
Farming games are the most-cited example because 5 Minutes, a Chinese game company, completed development of Happy Farm in May 2008, well before the start of Farmville, Zynga’s equivalent in the US.
But there are several other cases where Chinese internet entrepreneurs did not follow a US lead.
Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging site which was seen as a Twitter clone when it started, has now transformed into a service combining a microblog and a social network. It has many features Twitter does not have, for example allowing users to watch videos inside a post.
Baidu, China’s largest search engine by revenues, pioneered Tieba, a social network where people can form discussion groups based on search queries they have in common.
Tencent, the company that operates QQ, the world’s largest instant messaging service, came up with QQ Groups, a service that allows users to form message groups, something that did not exist in the west at the time. Taobao, China’s largest consumer e-commerce company, set up an instant messaging service before Ebay acquired such capabilities by buying Skype in 2005.
Chinese executives cite YY, a completely voice-based instant messaging tool, and UCWeb, the independent mobile browser, as further examples of China-first innovation.
But none of these have created a stir beyond China’s borders on the scale of Facebook or Twitter – mainly because the innovations were not as far-reaching or disruptive.
“Chinese internet entrepreneurs are particularly strong in micro-innovation – tweaking existing models to fit the needs and habits of consumers in this market,” says Mr Li.
Industry experts believe that will not change until China’s internet has become much more mature. “I think there will be a window of at least another ten years for building internet businesses based on ideas copied from the US ,” says Gong Yu, chief executive of Qiyi, the online video site owned by Baidu.
Chinese executives believe the area most likely to spawn major innovation will be the mobile internet because Chinese web users are going mobile much earlier than their American counterparts. Says Mr Gong: “If anywhere, this is where China will come up with something really different.”