Ever since high-speed internet came into being, China has built a giant firewall to prevent apps from other nations being used in it. In fact, in 2016 I met a couple of Chinese journalists, who showed me the substitutes for Facebook and Twitter that have almost the same user interface, barring the fact that they are Chinese. Of course, if you’re an expat living in China, then you need special permission from the Chinese authorities to use more familiar social media tools.
A New York Times 2016 story highlighted how China, which was once upon a time known as the ‘land of cheap rip-offs’, is now the guide to the future when it comes to internet technology. The video explained that if the world wide web was a giant ocean, then the internet in China was a giant oasis of mutated creatures that redefined how the internet would be used in the future. A number of US, European and even Indian companies have tried making their versions of the Chinese apps, and while there is success in some, for others it is still a mystery waiting to be decoded.
The Chinese lagoon has drawn a lot of interest and for the past few years, apps like CamScanner, UC Browser, TikTok and Halo were ruling markets across the world. Most Chinese-made phones that were sold for first-time smart phone users who required a budget phone to use, had UC Browser as an already-installed app on the phone. A friend’s driver, who had a budget-level Xiaomi phone used the browser to watch all his favourite movies through the browser itself. He said that it was a great way to pass time while waiting in the car all day.
If you look at the data provided by Sensor Tower in the final quarter of 2019, a number of Chinese apps were downloaded across the world on both Apple and Android platforms. While TikTok ruled the Apple Store, it was number three on Android, although data clubbing both Android and Apple users made TikTok the most downloaded app after Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
The TikTok phenomenon of course is huge. In the past two years, the app, which is known for videos – some that are crazy others that are cringeworthy – has seen over 2 billion downloads with India contributing 30 per cent of this. According to a January 2020 report, TikTok alone made a Rs 25 crore quarterly revenue in India and had targeted Rs 100 crore by the September quarter. The app’s ban will hinder this, as will the ban on 58 other apps by the Government of India.
It's not just TikTok. Apparel app Shein, which saw 5 million downloads in its first year in India between 2017 and 2018 became an instant hit because of its budget-friendly clothing, easy user experience, and customised algorithms for its users, made it a more popular app than local app Myntra, according to Android Rank.
The ban on Chinese apps
In a statement, the Ministry of Information and Technology said that it “has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps… for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India”. Since this “ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures”, it has said.
According to an article in Bloomberg, India’s new policies have jeopardised all the successes and these could have further have a wider geopolitical consequence. Given that US President Donald Trump has constantly blamed China for the global spread of the novel coronavirus and had even started a proxy trade war with the Xi Jinping-led regime, the Chinese government will be looking to go back to the drawing board. And it’s going to be a lot of difficult decisions, in case the ban isn’t lifted. For starters, Chinese apps and Chinese technology contribute a significant amount to the country’s economy. A January article published in The Economic Times said that the tech industry in China is worth $3 trillion, which is 33 per cent of the nation’s output, with the government spending $440 billion a year on R&D.
The India ban – if they stick to it and that is a big IF – could just be the start of a lot of things to come regarding the way the world will view China. If the US, going by Donald Trump’s threats follows suit, the geopolitical situation across the world may look different by the time we reach the end of the year.