Why Facebook, Google, and Twitter Made It in Vietnam, But Not in China

Anh-Minh Do
3:31 pm on Mar 6, 2013

Oftentimes, people like to compare Vietnam with China. In some ways, the similarities are pretty obvious. The Chinese dynasties ruled Vietnam for one thousand years. Vietnamese people celebrate Lunar New Year, and our names have Chinese roots. But online and in the tech industry, things look really different.

In Asia, there are four communist countries: China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. Laos and North Korea are so small they’re not really on the tech map (even if North Korea is finally using mobile internet). That leaves China and Vietnam. In China, Baidu, Tencent, and Sina Weibo are the search and social media giants. In Vietnam, Google and Facebook are tops and Twitter isn’t blocked. What happened?

China began interfering with Google’s search service in 2010, and it frequently fails to load but is not fully blocked. It’s due to China’s effort to manage the content that the majority of its population has access to; it’s also, some have argued, a big part of the protectionist success of Baidu and Sina Weibo who fill the shoes of Google and Facebook/Twitter. Today, Baidu gets an average of five billion search queries per day, and Google gets over 100 billion searches per month. But with Google partially locked out of China (it’s still the fifth most used search engine there), Baidu basically has near-exclusive access to the biggest market in the world.

In Vietnam, Google.com.vn is the number one search site and Google.com is number three. Vietnam has some new locally-made players like Wada.vn and CocCoc, but they’ll have a hard time up against Google’s dominance. In the mid 2000’s, Google was already slowly creeping into Vietnam. Youtube was and still is one of the most used and viewed websites in Vietnam and so Google was allowed to slowly creep in.

The interesting thing about Vietnam is that Google never officially opened up an office here. It still hasn’t. Google slowly entered, its value was assessed by users, and then it slowly rose to dominance. Now, if Google were blocked in Vietnam, it would leave a huge black hole in the Vietnamese cyberspace.

This is the trend in Vietnam. Let them in, assess how politically harmful they could be, and then realize it’s too late to cut them. For social media, it’s a little more complex. But the same principles apply.

from Doubleaf via Flickr

Social Media

China began blocking Facebook in 2008 and Twitter in 2009. In China, the Great Firewall has been very hard to get through, so China’s users have flocked to local social services like Sina Weibo 1. Although many would argue that Chinese sites would still have more users even if others were not blocked. I don’t buy it. If Facebook wasn’t blocked in China, Zuckerberg would open up an office there and/or be collecting the same wealth of data that Weibo now collects on its users. Today, Sina Weibo supposedly has 500 million users. That’s more than Twitter’s 200 million and less than Facebook’s billion.

Vietnam started blocking Facebook in 2009. But the block was relatively casual. Most users still get on via DNS tweaks or using HotSpotShield with no problems. This is exactly why we’ve seen such explosive growth in Vietnam – doubling its numbers in a year. It’s currently the fastest growing Facebook country in the world, and Facebook has surpassed Zing as the nation’s top social destination.

Vietnam let Facebook in and let it grow until it was too late. Recently, I learned from an undisclosed source that Facebook supposedly has 15 to 20 million users in Vietnam already, so if authorities pull the plug it would be disastrous for users in the country. Hundreds and thousands of businesses have set up shop in Vietnam with Facebook Pages and advertisements.

And although the block has strengthened along with the political tides, that has more served to educate the population to self-censor more than deterred use of Facebook. Today, the block is as light as ever. And because of this, Vietnam has effectively avoided the need to build its own Weibo.

Oh, and as far as Twitter is concerned, in Vietnam, microblogging still hasn’t caught on. That’s probably why it’s not blocked.

from Vietnamese comic artist Thanh Phong

What this all means

Although Vietnam and China are neighboring socialist republics and Communist comrades, they’ve taken very different political stances towards the internet. China sees the internet variously as a battle field, a business goldmine, and a threat to social stability. China’s allegory is one of a large empire controlling the biggest population in the world and eventually leading the world. Information is essential to that and it must be tightly controlled and it must be Chinese. That was underlined this week by China’s tech ministry taking a dim view of Android.

Vietnam, with about 92 million people, is smaller in population than China’s most populous province, Guangdong, with its 104 million. The allegory in Vietnam is catch up and adapt. There isn’t a global agenda. That has allowed Vietnamese users to reap the rewards of the two tech giants – both Silicon Valley and China’s web companies – but that’s at the cost of not building giants of its own. Vietnamese social media and search startups struggle to compete with Facebook and Google with no government protection, financing, or encouragement.

There are two sides to this coin. In China, the result is a lot of space for startups and mega-tech companies like Baidu to build for the local population. But they sacrifice a connection to the world. In Vietnam, startups have to compete with outsiders while also getting a little more globally connected – although many would argue people here are still very isolated. The end result may be that some Chinese tech successes are inflated because they have no “real” competitors beyond their borders; and Vietnamese startups are stunted because they can’t out-execute the big guys or regional startups who expand into the country.

But the truth is, it’s a very hard comparison. Although they’re run under relatively similar governments, the scale alone puts everything out of proportion. Chinese companies immediately have access to a huge population while also competing with a host of other fellow Chinese companies. How they triumph over these odds is what really fascinates me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, comment below at your leisure.

  1. It’s debatable if the Great Firewall has helped those sites, or if better localization would’ve been enough for them to win. For example, Renren was beating Facebook in China before Facebook was even blocked.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

  • Lin

    I really hate the block of google/facebook and other social meadia.

    I’m a Chinese programer.

    Baidu is a rogue company… In Baidu’s eyes, money is everything, justice or reality is just a shit. You can do more research on so.360.cn and Baidu.com

  • Hien

    The Viet people celebrate Luna New Year, it dose not mean Viet people look alike Chinese. Why?
    1- Chinese history shown that Chinese people living in one place called “village” but only one or two Surname control that “village” and Chinese worship these people as “King”
    Viet people have been living in village called “làng, ấp” that had a group of respective old men and women created the rules for that làng, ấp. Communist VN follow Chinese Commies “brother” to destroy Viet’s system. Some villages in VietNam still keeping these traditions. Some in the North and South.
    2- Viet people don’t have same mentalities like Han people who mainly control Chinese society and invaded the other like Manchu, Tibetian, Mongolian etc….

    If you are saying Chinese and Viet people “look alike” you have same thinking like Westerners “all Asian look Chinese” means lack of knowledge. That also means VietNam is no longer shown on the map of this earth. For 1000 years Viet people against over and over again an lately Jan 19, 1974, 1979, Mar 14,1988, and 1995, VietNam lost the battle of Chinese invading on Vietnam land borders as well as Paracel Islands, Spartly Islands.
    These strength to standup and collide with big guy like China that means Viet People completely differences than Chinese.

    Many books were published in the South Vietnam were burn/destroyed from VN Communist after 1975 to make Viet people “look like Chinese”. The Viet history has been more to learn than one comment you have.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Anh-Minh Do

    Vietnam was dominated by China for one thousand years. Almost every country in the region that borders with China has been heavily influenced by China, including Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, India, Tibet. For good or bad, this is a reality, China is and was a powerful empire.

    On the other side, I definitely agree that Vietnamese are a distinct people from the Chinese, but to deny Chinese influence would be just unscholarly of me.

    Also, I never said they “look alike”. You said that.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Willis Wee

    Hello Hien :) I don’t think Minh said that Viet people look like Chinese. Thanks for the history lessons btw!

  • Duc Anh

    Hi Minh, the artist of the “blocked website” picture is Thanh Phong, not Thang Phong. Maybe it was a typo but I like to correct thing 😛

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