Daily Insights

How US Tech Giants Copy China

By: Liz Flora | May 31, 2019

Years ago, China’s tech companies were defined almost solely as clones of American counterparts: Baidu was “China’s Google,” Taobao was its eBay, Renren was its Facebook, and so on. This idea has become so entrenched in the tech industry that it was even a joke in the plotline of the most recent season of HBO’s Silicon Valley.

But in the sink-or-swim China market, “clone” apps have rapidly evolved to become incomparable to anything that came before them in the United States, while innovative new models are creating newly minted unicorns. These days, it’s often the US companies that are the ones late to the game with successful new features. Just a few examples of the many areas where the Chinese company came first are listed below:

Facebook sees WeChat in its future. China’s once-powerful Facebook clone Renren is now a “digital ghost town” that China’s millennials only visit to reminisce over photos from their college days. To avoid a similar fate for Facebook and attempt to address privacy concerns that have plagued his company, Mark Zuckerberg’s plan for the future is reminiscent of the all-powerful messaging app WeChat, which has embedded itself into everyday life in China in ways that Facebook can only dream of. Zuckerberg announced earlier this year his plans to integrate the messaging apps of Instagram, Facebook, and the closest thing to WeChat that Facebook owns, WhatsApp. Then in April, he announced Facebook’s intention to transition toward a “privacy-focused communications platform,” evoking WeChat’s 1:1 messaging structure and private newsfeed. 

WhatsApp’s payments push. Years after WeChat Pay rose to become one of the top two mobile payment methods in China, WhatsApp is building out its WhatsApp Pay feature after successfully launching in India. It is yet to be seen whether consumers will see Zuckerberg’s envisioned future mega-messaging app as much of a necessity for daily life as Chinese users see WeChat. 

Google gets big inspiration from Mini Programs. Facebook isn’t the only company taking a page from WeChat’s playbook. The company’s development of its “Mini-apps” feature, elicits comparisons to WeChat’s successful Mini Programs, or apps that function within WeChat itself rather than requiring a separate download. Mini Programs have taken off on WeChat, with over three-fourths of Index beauty brands now operating one, according to Gartner L2’s recent Beauty China report

Amazon follows Alibaba’s lead. Amazon has adopted several key features after China’s top e-commerce company Alibaba beat it to the punch. Its livestreamed shopping feature Amazon Live was introduced long after Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao offered the same in China. And while China’s e-tailers generally get a bad rap for counterfeits, Amazon’s new Project Zero takedown system was introduced after Alibaba created its own more automated solution for removing fakes while preventing abuse, the Good Faith Takedown Mechanism.

Snapchat gets serious about games. Looking to revive its lackluster user numbers, Snapchat is turning to in-app games to re-capture the interest of fickle teens. This has proven successful for WeChat, which previously launched its in-app Mini Games feature that has a function similar to that of Mini Programs.

Instagram is seeing RED. A main visual source for style and beauty information in the US, Instagram launched a beta shopping feature in March this year that allows buyers to click on items and purchase directly through the app. Chinese social and shopping app RED has long offered this as a built-in feature, entwining the worlds of social media and e-commerce in ways that have not been achieved by US apps.