Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

QQ: Opiate of Today’s Chinese Netizens

It’s surprising sometimes the way things turn in a foreign country. I suppose it wold be better to say that it’s surprising in general how things go in any country or culture. The only difference is that your cultural radar in a foreign language isn’t always prepared for what comes up.

A case in point is the recent standoff between QQ, the largest and most powerful instant message service in China, and 360safe, a large, free provider of anti-virus software. The numbers are in themselves quite staggering: QQ is said to have 1 billion registered accounts and 500 million active monthly users, and 360safe is said to be used by 200 million people.

I was surprised this morning to see how flooded China’s news reports were with QQ and 360safe. I use PPS to watch the most recent and popular new reports, and it seemed like the first 20 or so videos were all about the scandal.

Apparently, 360safe claims that Tencent, the company that administers QQ instant messaging, is secretly stealing information from people’s computers. 360safe offered a plug-in that blocked certain functions of QQ. Tencent claimed that the allegations weren’t true (even though in the meantime the company issued a more secure version of QQ).

The story took a stranger turn when Tencent decided to block usage of QQ to any using 360safe’s anti-virus program. The importance and widespread saturation of QQ in Chinese society cannot be understated. Whether for social or business interactions, the Chinese use QQ more than they use email to communicate. Tencent’s actions left many Chinese people to wake up to their QQ messaging service not working.

360safe could not really encourage people use an alternative messaging service, because in fact, there really isn’t any viable alternative in China to QQ, at least not yet. MSN and Google have made inroads. Certain social media sites like Kaixin001 and RenrenWang offer friend-oriented messaging services. But QQ is the overwhelming master player.

Initially, 360safe encouraged people use a web-based version of QQ, until Trecent shut down service.

Users are left with a stark choice: uninstall 360safe to use QQ or turn to an alternative form of communication and continue using 360safe anti-virus.

Numerous observations can be offered up to this event:

(1.) Internet usage is massive in China, and, as such, competition between internet companies in China is brutal, especially as territories are continually encroached and fought over.

(2.) It has been my observation that Chinese society don’t have the same perspective on Internet life as some Western users, namely many Chinese users do not even really care about questions of censorship if they are able to have access to various forms of entertainment like QQ, QQ games, free, pirated movies, etc.

(3.) Along the same line, in my opinion, it is difficult to ever fully control the internet so if people can be encouraged to simply enjoy instead of question then this is a pleasant alternative for the Chinese government.

(4.) While the Chinese are becoming more accustomed to higher quality goods including cars, clothes, and phones, most Chinese tend to still accept convenient and established over technologically better. (This parallels my belief on why Baidu maintains superiority in China.) Perhaps this will change, but it is not easy for new competition to compete on equal terms with the big, well-connected players in China.

(5.) Finally, the thing I was most surprised about in this incident between QQ and 360safe was the fact that neither seemed to really care about how their users would be affected. Some several million people awoke to blocked service. While the more savvy users will quickly figure out what’s awry, many people just simply want it to work, no questions asked. These business practices perhaps reflect an Asian idea of losing face or perhaps the perspective on the power of the big Mafia to overpower a small gang. In either case, neither is exactly clean nor honorable. QQ is, of course, more at fault, but it is much better positioned to push people to leave 350safe than 360safe is to propose an alternative to QQ.

From a Western perspective, it seems (!) impossible to imagine Google shutting down access to Gmail just because you use a Blackberry instead of an Android phone. But this is more or less what happened: one large company got caught in the wrong but is powerful enough to simply say, So what? Everyone is a loser in this situation. It’s just that some are big enough to never really get knocked down.

I awoke this morning with a blitz of Chinese news, but I imagine most Chinese woke up with an annoying “no service” for their QQ. As these stats indicate[1], they may not like or agree with QQ’s actions and largely side with 360safe in the dispute, but when push comes to shove, it is easier to give up an anti-virus program than for the Chinese to give up QQ. Something other instant messaging services probably already knew: QQ is the domestically-produced opiate of choice for the Chinese netizens, an addiction that is hard to imagine changing anytime soon.