Two fascinating—and inter-related—China tech stories surfaced Friday. The first involved Facebook which, according to a report by The New York Times, has tip-toed back into the China market using a photo-sharing app called “Colorful Balloons”. The second involves a news aggregation site, Jinri Toutiao, who’s name literally means “today’s headline.”
The Times reports that Facebook authorized the release of Colorful Balloons—caise qiqiu (????) in Mandarin—on the Chinese version of the iOS App Store in May. The app looks and functions like Facebook Moments, (hence the balloons) but carries no overt Facebook branding. The app was released through a local company named Youge Internet Technology, which has no apparent connection to Facebook.
Facebook seemed to obliquely acknowledge that it had authorized the app. “We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways,” the company said in a statement.
Trying to learn about China without Beijing’s blessing would be a bold move for Facebook, which was banned in China in July 2009 after the network was used to spread news of riots between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese in the western Chinese city of Urumqi. Since then, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has tried just about everything he could think of to curry favor with China’s communist rulers. He learned to speak Mandarin, invited China’s Internet czar to tour Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, and made multiple forays to China himself. (A 2016 Beijing visit included a brisk run through the haze of Tiananmen Square famously mocked as the “smog jog“). But it has all been to no avail.
The Times declared the release of Colorful Balloons “stealthy and anonymous,” “unprecedented,” and a mark of the “desperation—and frustration—of global tech companies as they bring to break into the world’s largest online market.” Hard to disagree with that.
Which brings us to Toutiao. The service was launched in 2012 by 34-year old entrepreneur Zhang Yiming and is operated by Zhang’s company, the delightfully named Beijing ByteDance Technology.
ByteDance may be China’s hottest startup. The venture has already raised more than $1 billion from Sequoia Capital and CCB International, the overseas investment arm of China Construction Bank. On Friday, Reuters, citing “people familiar with the matter,” reported that ByteDance is seeking an additional $2 billion in funding at the jaw-dropping valuation of over $20 billion. That would make ByteDance a “decacorn” and then some—equal in valuation to Peter Theil’s Palantir, and bigger than WeWork, SpaceX, Pinterest or Dropbox. Reuters says U.S.-based private equity firm General Atlantic is among potential new investors.