Despite strict state control, digitalization is on the fast track in China

Despite strict state control, digitalization is on the fast track in China

Internet access in China is restricted more than almost anywhere else in the world. Online media of any kind is rigorously controlled through a comprehensive set of laws and regulations, and many websites and platforms are censored or entirely blocked. According to the 2017 annual Freedom on the Net study by Freedom House, China ranked last for the third time in a row among the countries assessed. At the same time, China is one of the most advanced countries in terms of using mobile devices and apps for all aspects of daily life. Some companies started by copying international online platforms and adapting them for the domestic market. Currently, the big four Chinese IT companies – Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and Jindong – dominate the Chinese market and are also entering the global market. The two main competitors are Alipay (by Alibaba) and WeChat (by Tencent). These “one-in-all apps” allow users to manage their whole lives: pay utility bills; apply for appointments at hospitals; register a marriage; pay taxes and manage finances; use local transportation or shared bike systems; and pay at cafés and restaurants – basically everything can be done on a mobile device. In fact, people have to use these apps more and more or they will otherwise not have access to certain services. There are already places that do not accept cash payments anymore. For most Chinese people, this is not much of a problem, as they have embraced the convenience that comes with it.

One of the many famous Chinese apps is Jindong, an online shopping platform and the main competitor to Alibaba’s Taobao platform. Jindong started by selling electronic appliances; today, like Taobao, it offers almost everything. Delivery is often guaranteed within a day through its own delivery service. 58-Daojia (“58 Home service”) is one of the most commonly used platforms offering everyday home services, such as cleaning homes, home appliances, or clothes; repairing, moving, or fixing up furniture; driving and picking up people; finding nannies, beauty, health, or fitness offers, and much more. One of the most popular livestreaming apps is KuaiShou, which started as a photo-sharing app a few years ago. Many users have even managed to earn money through KuaiShou, as many of the viewers are willing to “rate” and “donate” money to watch people clean, iron, cook, eat, and so on. Despite comprehensive and strict online control and supervision as well as plans to build up a “Social Credit Regulation System,” a broad and critical debate about the government’s and companies’ use and misuse of private data is hard to find. This is due to censorship and also because Chinese users know that real privacy protection, online or offline, does not exist.