The Coming Chinese Internet Tsunami

I have begun to think and write about China more and more lately; there is such an incredible opportunity across the Pacific that seems largely unobserved by a majority of Americans. The Chinese economy and population base is so large and modernizing so rapidly, and has transformed from 3rd world to 1st world in a matter of decades (that same evolution took us hundreds of years here in America). As you can see in this chart from Google, China’s internet adoption has blown past the United States, both in terms of growth rate and sheer number of users. And they’re still at only 20% internet penetration. Mobile phone penetration is actually higher than internet penetration, approaching 60% depending on what study you read – that’s over 500 million mobile phones. This in itself is an interesting dynamic, as it seems that in China the mobile phone (rather than the PC) is the primary method of internet use and communication. As I understand it, this is a result of the relative difficulty and expense of getting a computer and home internet line installed – particularly in rural China, which does not yet have the widespread and developed communications infrastructure that we enjoy in the United States. Coupled with pervasive and cheap mobile phone service and a proliferation of advanced smart phones, the mobile internet has become the single point of connectivity for millions of Chinese. However you measure China’s growth, it doesn’t take an economist or venture capitalist to see that the pace of technological change, adoption, and transformation in China is unlike anything experienced in America or anywhere else.

I saw a statistic the other day that by the end of 2010 China will have more mobile internet users than there will be people in the United States. That’s staggering. There are countless companies with tons of VC hype and astronomical valuations climbing all over each other to try to capture even a sliver of the ~90mm user U.S. mobile internet market. And yet there is a Chinese market that is orders of magnitude larger and remains relatively unaddressed by America’s top online properties.

Facebook User Growth from March to April 2010

For example – Facebook has experienced tremendous user growth outside of the United States, adding almost 10 million global users in March 2010 alone. Below you’ll see a top 10 table of Facebook’s growth by country in March – millions of users were added in Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, and according to Facebook nearly all of those new users access the service exclusively on mobile devices (wow). And yet despite the obvious resonance with Asian consumers, Facebook remains conspicuously absent from China due to a near total blockage by the Chinese government.

Not to say there aren’t very significant and well established Chinese social networking players (including Tencent Inc., which is debatably the largest social network in the world) but I just find the under representation and seeming indifference of so many American Web 2.0 properties to be surprising. So many of today’s startups seem laser focused on attacking the United States mobile market, and are at the same time so haphazard in their Chinese strategy.

I do understand that there are significant regulatory and cultural hurdles to clear when moving a U.S.-based service into the Chinese market. In addition to censorship and restrictions on foreign business ownership, there is no guarantee that a product that has been successful in the United States will resonate with Chinese consumers. Many of today’s social media and self publishing centric products and services simply aren’t workable in a country that does not allow the free flow of information or exchange of ideas that we enjoy here in America.

It seems that the swell of Chinese internet users (on mobile devices especially) are like a tsunami being held back by poor access to broadband and isolated by the dam of government censorship. Though there are millions of users already climbing over and around the dam (with things like proxy servers and other methods of circumventing the “Great Firewall of China”), I expect that the real wave will come over the next several years as the government finds it increasingly difficult to censor its citizens, and increased broadband penetration plugs more and more Chinese into the web. As China comes online in a bigger and bigger way, it’s going to be harder than ever for American startups and social media players to compete without confronting the tsunami head on.

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Bill D'Alessandro