Why there’s no TikTok in China
Apr 3, 2024

Why there’s no TikTok in China

TikTok’s sister app, Douyin, has more than 700 million users in China. But why did ByteDance, the company behind both apps, create similar but separate products in the first place? Jennifer Pak, Marketplace’s China correspondent, explains.

The Chinese company ByteDance owns two versions of basically the same app. In the U.S. we have TikTok, used by an estimated 170 million people. Meanwhile, Douyin, the app used in China itself, has an estimated 700 million daily active users.

Each app has different users in different countries and, some argue, different kinds of content. Essentially, despite having the same parent company, TikTok and Douyin function as separate worlds.

Now, as TikTok simmers in political hot water once again, the differences between the apps are being examined under a microscope. To get to the bottom of what sets these sister apps apart, Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Marketplace’s China correspondent, Jennifer Pak, about why ByteDance has this system in the first place.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jennifer Pak: Essentially the Chinese government wants to have control over all of the content within the country. So, China doesn’t want the outside world content to come into a platform that it cannot control. ByteDance, which is the parent company for TikTok and Douyin, decided that rather than trying to have a version that appeals to China and the rest of the world, to instead have two separate products entirely. So one app, Douyin, abides by Chinese censorship and content regulation rules, and then one for the rest of the world.

Lily Jamali: What is Douyin? How would you describe it to someone who’s never seen it?

Pak: I think it essentially operates the same as all short-video apps. So, it’s a few-second-long videos that come with some music sometimes. It’s created entirely by people for other people. I mean, you mentioned the numbers for TikTok, but Douyin has 743 million active users as of September 2023, so it’s a wide-ranging population. There is tons of content on there that is not solely just for the much younger teenage population.

Jamali: Well, shall we open up our apps? I have my TikTok app, and the first thing that popped up actually was Kai Ryssdal because “Marketplace” is on TikTok. But then I’m seeing, you know, some beauty stuff, lots of young girls talking about jewelry and makeup. Apparently I’m very boring, but really into makeup. Jen, what are you seeing?

Pak: Well, for sure Kai Ryssdal’s not going to show up on Douyin because we do not have an account because it will probably be subject to censorship rules. OK, I just opened mine, and now it’s a tourist video about Xi’an with the Terracotta Warriors. Now I’m seeing somebody who looks like an artificial intelligence version of [actor] Chris Evans. He’s doling out some life advice. I don’t know if Chris Evans is aware of this, but it kind of looks like him. Oh, here’s a wonderful food. We’ve got some kimchi, pork belly.

Kind of sounds similar, right? I mean, the whole point is that it’s supposed to be entertaining. That’s what ByteDance was going for. Because if you look at Zhang Yiming, who was the founder of ByteDance initially, because he’s an engineer, he was thinking, what’s the best way to capture people’s attention? How can we learn what types of content people like to watch and at the same time adhere to China’s very strict censorship rules? So, it must be humor, entertainment, right? Things that are not so sensitive. That’s not to say that things don’t get blocked. They get taken down quite frequently from Chinese social media. But this is not restricted to just Douyin.

Jamali: Let me ask you this. There’s a clip from the show “60 Minutes” that has been making the rounds recently. They did an interview about TikTok and Douyin with a tech ethicist named Tristan Harris, he’s the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. And here’s what he said:

Tristan Harris: “In their version of TikTok, if you’re under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, patriotism videos and educational videos. They make their domestic version a spinach version while they’ve shipped the opium version to the rest of the world.”

Jamali: Based on what you’ve seen, does that idea from Tristan Harris ring true?

Pak: I have to say that I’ve heard people here describe Douyin as kind of opium as well. I don’t think necessarily schoolteachers or even parents are happy when their kids are going on Douyin. So in China, everybody who has an account online, usually they have to register with their real name, which means they have to put their ID cards in or their phone numbers, which is very much linked to our passports and ID cards so that authorities will know if you posted something that you probably shouldn’t have.

I would say maybe it’s true in terms of how strict China’s censorship rules are. But I have to say there’s a lot of stuff that people are not happy about on Douyin. Yes, there’s news. Yes, I’ve seen videos of little kids teaching their parents about math problems and how they solved it because they learned it in tutoring classes. But at the same time, you see equally the same amount of nonsensical stuff, people shoving as much food as they can in their mouth, people dancing. I mean, again, the whole point is for entertainment, right? And so, I would say that overall, I’ve not heard of people here saying that Douyin is educational at all.

Jamali: That’s really interesting to hear. Clearly, a large portion of U.S. lawmakers are unhappy with TikTok, as we’ve seen in recent weeks. How does the government of China seem to feel about Douyin?

Pak: I think China’s government is just as uneasy about social media in general. I don’t think they necessarily have any less concern about Douyin. So, I understand why the narrative may be there to make the link more clear for people that there’s this product from ByteDance that’s going out to try to poison the rest of the world, but keep the good stuff for China. But I just don’t see that happening. There’s no evidence of that. You know, if it was up to the Chinese government, I don’t think they really want social media. I mean, the reason that these two programs are bifurcated is so that Chinese nationals don’t have an easy way that they can communicate with the rest of the world on platforms that are not regulated by China’s government. That is, at the end of the day, the real purpose of this. Not because, you know, they think that there’s a way to influence the rest of the world. And, by the way, I want to mention that ByteDance is very much a private company. So, I know that there are lots of concerns about where the Chinese government is, but again, ByteDance is a private company.

Jamali: ByteDance had a different app that was shut down by the Chinese government back in 2018. Can you tell me about that?

Pak: Yeah, it was called Neihan Duanzi and it was a joke app. But in 2018, it just suddenly got shut down by the government and Bytedance came out and apologized, supposedly for misdirecting users and also having lowbrow content. So, it does happen. Like you were asking about what’s the relationship between ByteDance and the government? I would say ByteDance is always trying. It’s got a whole host of products here in China, and not all of them are to the liking of the Chinese government. So, a lot of companies have to do strict content management in order to survive here in China.

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