Zhang Yiming, Bytedance’s founder, created two versions of the group’s hit short-video app to reach the broadest possible audience
Zhang Yiming, Bytedance’s founder, created two versions of the group’s hit short-video app to reach the broadest possible audience © Bloomberg

The wildly popular Chinese short-video apps Douyin and Tik Tok look almost the same, with identical interfaces, video editing tools and logos. 

But there is a key difference: Douyin can only be downloaded from a Chinese app store by someone on the mainland, while Tik Tok is accessible only to users outside of the country. 

Bytedance, the Chinese internet company behind both fast-growing platforms, has created two separate apps for users at home and abroad rather than attempt to manage content flowing in and out of China’s “great firewall” — providing a potential road map for how mainland tech companies can go global without falling foul of Beijing’s content restrictions.

Since erecting a barrier of internet restrictions in 1998, China has operated largely within an intranet — its version of the worldwide web but bounded by digital controls. That has created a costly challenge for Chinese internet companies: how to expand globally while adhering to domestic content controls. 

Tik Tok’s experience offers one example of how Chinese companies can navigate Beijing’s internet controls by walling off domestic and international users within the apps themselves. 

“By nature, companies like Bytedance are more sensitive . . . because China controls videos more rigorously, and so government regulation and inspection of [these platforms] is stricter,” said Yan Zhanmeng, research director at Counterpoint Technology, an analysis firm. “This strategy of division reduces risk.” 

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Other major internet companies have explored the idea of separate, parallel versions of a product. The Financial Times reported last month that Google was considering a China-specific version of its search product that would censor results delivered for certain search terms. 

The company exited the country eight years ago rather than bend to authorities on censorship and surveillance. The proposed China search app, known internally as Dragonfly, has not yet received regulatory approval and may never be commercially launched. Sundar Pichai, chief executive, tried to quell staff disquiet about the project, telling them that the company was “not close” to launching it.

Six-year-old Bytedance has found success by building out separate video platforms

Tik Tok, its international app, was the world’s most downloaded iOS app in the first quarter of this year, according to US research firm Sensor Tower. It claims 200m monthly active users, while Douyin has amassed more than 300m monthly users in China as of June 2018.

Zhang Yiming, Bytedance’s founder, looked to create two versions of the platform from the beginning, including establishing separate teams to design and manage them, says Hans Tung, a board member at music video app Musical.ly and managing partner at GGV Capital, a Bytedance investor. 

“Initially, we saw people . . . [who] missed out in China and decided to put their energy elsewhere. We are seeing better quality teams that from day one want to build international teams,” he said. 

Tik Tok’s rapid global rise also has been helped by strategic acquisitions. Last month, Bytedance merged Tik Tok with Musical.ly, the US start-up it bought last November for $1bn. The accounts of Musical.ly’s 60m monthly users were automatically folded into the Tik Tok platform. 

Tik Tok only allows users to register accounts via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Google Plus — all of which are blocked in China. The app is not available to download for Chinese-registered users from Android and iOS stores. 

Those with smartphones using a Chinese Sim card cannot access Tik Tok even when the app is downloaded from a foreign-registered app store, a move likely aimed at guarding against the practice of skirting that restriction by buying a foreign app store login from ecommerce sites such as Taobao. 

Some critics say Bytedance is helping extend China’s restrictive internet architecture.

But the company has had its own run-ins with Beijing’s censors. In April, Jinri Toutiao, its popular news feed app which translates as “Today’s Headlines”, was slapped with a three-week download ban for allegedly sharing racy content. The crackdown prompted Bytedance to promise to increase its number of human censors from 6,000 to 10,000 to police and remove “vulgar” items.

Other analysts say Tik Tok’s success signals a departure from the reactive, labour-intensive method of navigating China censorship, a model pioneered by the ubiquitous Tencent-owned chat app WeChat. 

In 2013, WeChat was the first big Chinese app to try to go global, but it failed to build a meaningful presence abroad beyond the millions of overseas Chinese users who sent and received information through the great firewall. 

To police undesirable information, WeChat maintains a blocked keyword list that is updated as new events or sensitive issues come up, according to Lotus Ruan, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which studies censorship. 

“Chinese censorship is reactive to events and when an unexpected crisis happens, there is little time for censors to decide what content should or should not be censored,” said Ms Ruan. “Therefore it is very likely that private companies end up over-censoring content to play safe.” 

Censors and customers play a continuous “cat-and-mouse game”, she added. “Creative internet users can come up with coded languages to game the system, so there are always cracks in the wall.” 

Additional reporting by Yizhen Jia in Shanghai

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