China over the past decade built an alternate online reality where Google and Facebook barely exist. Now its own largest tech corporations from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to Tencent Holdings Ltd. are getting a taste of what a shutout feels like.
India’s unprecedented decision to ban 59 of China’s largest apps is a warning to the country’s tech giants, who for years thrived behind a government-imposed Great Firewall that kept out many of America’s best-known internet names. If India finds a way to carry out that threat, it may present a model for other countries from Europe to Southeast Asia that seek to curtail the pervasiveness of apps like ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok while safeguarding their citizens’ enormously valuable data.
The surprise moratorium hit Chinese internet companies just as they were beginning to make headway in the world’s fastest-growing mobile arena, en route to going global and challenging American tech industry supremacy. TikTok had signed up 200 million users there, Xiaomi Corp. is the No. 1 smartphone brand, and Alibaba and Tencent have aggressively pushed their services.
But India’s policy jeopardizes all those successes, and could have wider geopolitical consequences as the US seeks to rally countries to stop using Huawei Technologies Co. for 5G networks. With China’s tech companies poised to become some of the most dominant in emerging industries like artificial intelligence, India’s actions may spur countries around the world to weigh the extent to which they let China gain user data — and potentially economic leverage in future disputes.
“Techno-nationalism will manifest itself increasingly across all aspects of geopolitics: national security, economic competitiveness, even social values,” said Alex Capri, a Singapore-based research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation. “It will be increasingly difficult to separate Chinese tech firms from the CCP and China’s geopolitical ambitions. They will find themselves increasingly locked out.”