In recent years, a particularly eye-catching trend in China and India’s economic relationship has been the vast influx of Chinese internet companies into the Indian market. Chinese smartphones accounted for 50 percent of total smartphone sales in India going into the final quarter of last year, with Xiaomi alone chalking up $1 billion in sales and its Redmi 3 model winning plaudits as India’s most popular smartphone.
Mobile apps developed in China have also found a passage to India, including Android-based web browser UC Browser, which lays claim to 43 percent of India’s browser market, and Cheetah Mobile’s Security AppLock antivirus, India’s eighth most popular app in 2016. Now, these internet giants, alongside lesser-known breakthrough firms, are heading in droves into the development of content and news aggregation apps — a move that has the potential to transform the commercial and economic relationship between India and China.
Content aggregation apps are typically marketed as curators of content from dozens of news wires and media publications in India and elsewhere, using a combination of human editors and machine-learning algorithms to create a customized news feed for users. Popular examples include Flipboard and Google News in the United States and Jinri Toutiao in China.
Chinese internet companies have been expanding globally in recent years, regarding India as a serious priority. True to the speed and nature of disruption synonymous with the technology industry, in just 16 months these Chinese firms have laid claim to a considerable stake in India, offering serious competition to Indian counterparts like Inshorts and Jio Prime.
UCWeb, a browser owned by Alibaba Group, in April 2016 launched the UC News app, which currently occupies the number-one spot on the news and magazines section of India’s Google Play store, with 80 million monthly active users. Cheetah Mobile, meanwhile, acquired News Republic from a French company in 2016 but have launched it to more limited success so far: The app currently occupies a distant 93rd place. More surprising than both of these apps, however, is the presence of a Chinese company that very few in China have ever heard of: NewsDog.
NewsDog is somewhat unique because it is a Chinese-developed app launched exclusively for the Indian market. Its parent company, Hacker Interstellar, has no other known businesses, and its main office in Beijing is exclusively India-focused, according to a personal acquaintance who declined to be named for this article. Yet this relative underdog is the second most popular app in India.
Added to the mix is Beijing Bytedance Technology, owner of Jinri Toutiao, China’s most popular aggregation app. In October 2016, the company led a $25 million round of investment for an undisclosed stake in Dailyhunt, the third most successful content aggregator in India’s Google Play store.
Why has news aggregation in particular attracted the attention of Chinese companies? One answer is that India is the only country comparable to China in scale, financial promise, and market conditions. It is the ideal destination for Chinese companies whose unique selling points center on creating technology for hundreds of millions of mobile-savvy internet users, many of whom use budget Chinese-made Android smartphones and have limited access to fast and cheap Internet.
Another reason for Chinese interest in India is data. Accumulating user data and understanding user behavior are both key to selling advertising, which forms the basis of the revenue model employed by these companies. Data also fuels the machine-learning algorithms driving the future of the mobile technology industry. India thus appeals to Chinese market leaders eager to truly cement their industrial dominance, as well as to smaller Chinese firms that missed the boat the first time around.
To win big in an industry where standing still is akin to moving backwards, news apps are transitioning from content curation toward content creation, while also making a bigger push toward artificial intelligence (AI). At present, both News Republic and UC News have their own content-creation portals within their apps, with the latter investing an eye-popping $30 million to hire content-creation “stringers” and encourage user-generated content.
Their reasons for doing so are clear, as Kenny Ye, the general manager of overseas business at Alibaba Mobile Business Group, told me. “In China, the digital media market remains dominated by fast-growing local players,” he said. “There are more than 600 million mobile users and 20 million content creators in China. India currently has 371 million mobile users with minuscule contribution from self-publishing. India is still in its nascent stage compared to China.”
If knowledge transfer from China into India is key to the success of app aggregators, then the partnership between Jinri Toutiao and Dailyhunt appears quite promising. As the leading player in the personalized content-recommendation space with 508 million daily active users, Jinri Toutiao is a self-styled AI-first company. It claims to have built the largest machine-learning platform for content, as well as an AI journalist named Xiaoming that is capable of generating short reports on European football games, according to a recent interview with the head of Toutiao’s AI lab, Li Lei.
Overall, these developments reflect how China’s technology industry is increasingly training its attention on India. In the past year and a half or so, India-focused Chinese venture capital funds such as Cyber Carrier, APUS Fund, and ZDream Ventures have made a flurry of investments in Indian internet startups, adding to headline-grabbing deals like Tencent’s recent $1 billion investment in e-commerce player Flipkart. These new forces bind China’s economic interests to India, with the Chinese private sector becoming an increasingly important and powerful stakeholder in Indian industry.
Indian consumers using Chinese devices and platforms will also make China an important participant in India’s digital ecosystem. As articulated in a recent article by Arun Mohan Sukumar, head of the Cyber Security and Internet Governance Initiative at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, the positive side to this relationship may lead to the co-designing of services targeting the Indian market. But there are also genuine risks of Beijing becoming gatekeepers of security and influencers of consumer behavior, especially given the lack of online privacy laws in India.
The approaches taken by Chinese companies in the Indian mobile app space are worth watching not only for the rapid growth they are presently enjoying, but also for what their influence portends for the two countries’ future economic relations. The successes and failures of Chinese companies in India’s technology space may blaze a trail for future partnerships and usher the India-China relationship into a new era.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Attendees try out the Xiaomi Corp. Mi 4i smartphone during a launch event in New Delhi, India, April 23, 2015. Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg/VCG)