Digital Threads Between the US and China

As the two world superpowers grow further apart, the internet environments in the US and China are increasingly separate digital worlds. US internet companies have flopped in China, and with notable exceptions, apps from China have gone big outside their home country.

Digital life in each country is largely walled off from the other, but the two online spheres are not completely separate. There is a cross-fertilization of digital ideas between the US and China as well as the interdependence of threads, showing that hard borders and political divisions are not absolute roadblocks to bringing the internet to a fractured world a bit closer together.

The shreds of ties still exist between parallel digital spheres of China and the US demonstrating both the failure of the idea that the Internet can break down nationalist walls, and that online innovations can slip past borders and censorship.

For sure, the divisions are real. It’s hard to overstate just how different the online experiences are for people in China and the US

Most popular websites and apps in the West – including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Spotify, LinkedIn and Uber – are essentially banned by China’s government or have fallen on their faces in the country.

Airbnb, the last remaining large US internet company in China, said this week it would close its six-year-old home rental service there. The company, however, will continue to operate a business serving Chinese tourists outside the country, my colleague Erin Griffith reported.

Airbnb’s decision was effectively an admission that the company, like Google, Amazon and Uber, has been outfoxed by Chinese competitors. Those US companies have never had much of a shot in a country where the government tightly controls the internet and has made business difficult for many foreign (and recently, Chinese) tech companies.

You can count on Western tech companies that have thrived in China on one hand. There’s Apple and … that ‘s it? Maybe you could also include companies like Microsoft that have some mild success selling software or tech equipment to corporations.

It’s been almost as uncommon for Chinese digital stars to make headway in the US or many other large countries. TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet conglomerate ByteDance, is a notable exception. There’s also Didi, China’s on-demand ride titan, which has expanded into Latin America and other regions, though the Chinese government’s tech crackdown has hurt the company.

But the digital spheres of the two global superpowers are not completely separate.

People in China can’t officially access Facebook or Google, but companies sell billions of dollars in ads to businesses based in China that want to reach Chinese nationals or Chinese-speaking people elsewhere in the world.

Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence for the advertising firm GroupM, says companies based in China are responsible for roughly $ 10 billion of Facebook’s 2021 ad sales. That’s a lot of money for companies with zero official users in China.

There would be no Amazon as we know it without the boom in merchants from China that has expanded the product selection of the digital mall, as I wrote on Tech yesterday.

Trends and business ideas also move between separate internets in China and the US Perhaps you remember when each new smartphone was smaller than the last? Then large-screen smartphones have become popular among Chinese consumers, contributing to the dominance everywhere of supersized phones. If you love your gigantic iPhone, you can be thankful for 2010s smartphone buyers in Beijing and Shanghai.

There have been other Chinese trends that have shaped Americans’ online experiences. US internet companies have made so far unsuccessful but relentless attempts to mimic live internet shopping-as-entertainment programs from China. And executives ‘and investors’ hopes for food delivery services in the US and Europe stem from the ubiquity of food delivery services in China.

The copying goes in the other direction, too. Didi started out as a dispatch app for traditional car services. But when Uber opened its doors in China in 2014, connecting people with nonprofessional drivers, it affected how Didi operated, too. Uber gave up on China in 2016, but the company left its mark on Chinese transportation.

Don’t get me wrong: The divisions far outweigh the fuzzy links between the internet systems in China and the US and it’s hard to imagine that changing. China and the US are growing further apart, both politically and online.

But I find some measure of hope that China’s authoritative internet controls and the animosities between the US and China cannot completely wall off the two countries’ digital worlds.


  • More signs of fear and cutbacks in tech: Lyft said it would slow down and cut some of the budgets off. Uber is freezing hiring. Snap warned this week that its advertising sales were weaker than the company expected. A prominent start-up investor recently consulted young businesses to conserve cash. Amazon is cutting back on warehouse space. This is all evidence that sinking stock prices, unsteady sales and uncertain economic conditions are spooking many tech companies.

  • His DIY phone repair went very badly. My colleague Brian X. Chen broke his iPhone trying to use Apple’s new instructions and tools to help people and independent repair shops fix its gadgets. Brian concluded that there were some benefits to Apple’s repair program, but that it “set up the customer to fail,” as one technician told him.

  • It’s an anachronism but a lovely one: Bloomberg CityLab posted about vending machines at Bay Area Transit Station that dispense printed short stories for people to read and pass along. Why not display a QR code or some other digital doodad? “It won’t be the same!” the publication wrote.

The view from a person’s remote work spot at a coffee shop: A duck (apparently wearing shoes) wandered onto the sidewalk seating areaGeneral Chat Chat Lounge Someone brought the duck a drink of water.


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