There has been much talk in recent months about a decoupling of the world’s two largest economies, driven by the United States under President Donald Trump. But the stories of Alibaba, WeChat and other Chinese tech companies show that Beijing has been pursuing a decoupling of its own, or at least a strategy of asymmetrical market access, for decades now.
Consider China’s “Great Firewall.” Earlier this year, the Spectator Index published a partial list of companies blocked on the Chinese internet. It included Google search and Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter, Netflix, Instagram, WhatsApp and Dropbox, as well as the websites of the BBC, The New York Times, Nikkei, LeMonde, Der Spiegel and The Economist, among others.
While Alibaba and Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, have been extraordinary success stories, not all of China’s would-be national champions have enjoyed comparable triumphs.
For example, Baidu, the search engine that has dominated the Chinese internet since Google abandoned China largely over censorship issues in 2010, has garnered little success competing in international markets. Indeed, many in China loathe it, particularly young people, who often turn to virtual private networks, or VPNs, and other technical hoops to evade domestic internet controls so they can use Google and some of the other popular Western tech giants that are blocked.