The digital landscape of China is perhaps the world’s most dynamic and unique.

China was a relative latecomer in digitalization, yet in the past twenty years it has witnessed a staggering growth in internet usage, and it is now by far the biggest internet market in the world with over 1 billion internet users with a penetration of 73%. China is the only country in the world where more purchases happen on than offline.

Due to a combination of governmental restrictions and cultural distinctiveness, the majority of internet platforms commonly used globally (Google, Facebook, Amazon etc) are not accessible and used in China. This has created a unique ecosystem in which local platforms have substituted in usage and in many cases surpassed global platforms in functionalities and sophistication.

It is therefore more important than ever to understand the cultural differences, solutions available and how to best go about dealing with them to make any interaction via China’s digital channels as simple and as successful as possible.

The chapters under this section provide information to help you build your digital strategy for China.

If you have questions or would like to know more, our team in the Luxembourg Trade & Investment Office in Shanghai is there to help. Please get in touch.


The Digital Landscape of China

China’s digital landscape at a glance

The digital landscape of China is perhaps the world’s most dynamic and unique.

China was a relative latecomer in digitalization, yet in the past twenty years it has witnessed a staggering growth in internet usage, and it is now by far the biggest internet market in the world. With over 1 billion internet users, its digital population trumps the total population of the United States and European Union combined.

Size is not the Chinese digital landscape’s only striking feature. Due to a combination of governmental restrictions and cultural distinctiveness, the majority of internet platforms commonly used globally (Google, Facebook, Amazon etc) are not accessible and used in China. This has created a unique ecosystem in which local platforms have substituted in usage and in many cases surpassed global platforms in functionalities and sophistication.

Here are the key topline features of the Chinese internet:

  • Its population is enormous, with over 1 billion users. Internet penetration stands at 73.0%, which is very high considering China’s population of over 1.4 billion users. A comparable country by population, India, has a penetration rate of only 47.0%.
  • Access mostly happens via mobile. Over 99.7% of users connect via mobile and not necessarily via computer, which is higher than many Western countries. This has important repercussions, namely the Chinese users’ preference of apps over websites.
  • E-commerce is a way of living. China is the only country in the world where more purchases happen online than offline. In Western countries, only around 10-15% of purchases are made online, with offline shopping still being prevalent.
  • Chinese users mostly browse the Chinese web. Government restrictions on foreign platforms and relatively little foreign language proficiency shield the global internet from users, who mostly browse local platforms in the local language.

What is in this guide

These characteristics make it apparent that the Chinese internet requires companies and organizations to rethink their strategy and entering China online cannot be tackled as “adding just another language on the official website”. These key rethinking strategies will be addressed in depth in the following sections of this guide.

These are the topics covered in the following sections:

  • Chinese digital users and their peculiarities. Understanding how Chinese use the internet in a profoundly different way from the West is key in communicating to them properly, on the right platforms and with the appropriate strategies.
  • E-commerce in China. China is the world’s biggest e-commerce market by a long mark and Chinese online shoppers behave in a very peculiar way. This section will list the main e-commerce characteristics and platforms in the country.
  • Cross-border e-commerce. A relatively new regulatory framework that allows companies to sell their products in China without being physically in the country, its features and differences from traditional e-commerce will be addressed here.
  • Social media in China. China has the world’s most social media users, none of which use the Western social networks readers are familiar with. This section will list main platforms and the way users interact on them.
  • Digital marketing. This section will introduce the foundations of promotion and advertising online in China, with a particular focus on companies that are just starting to promote themselves the Chinese internet.
  • Legal considerations. This section will list a few legal matters companies will need to be careful about before entering China through online. Despite not being a definitive legal guide, it provides a starting point for companies to seek professional legal support.
  • Dos and don’ts. A list of 10 positive and 10 negative recommendations based on previous successful and failed examples of foreign companies entering the Chinese digital ecosystem.



Digital Marketing in China

Digital Marketing in China vs the West

The Chinese digital ecosystem is very different from that of Western countries, so naturally companies need to readjust the ways they use digital media to promote themselves in China.

Very rarely international companies succeed in China by simply applying foreign marketing strategies, and it is a widespread mistake to think China can be tackled as “just another internet market”. It is also quite common for international marketers to assume that China, being a middle-income economy, is an affordable market for digital promotion, while the opposite is quite true; traffic and customer acquisition costs are higher than many Western countries, and knowing how to properly tackle digital marketing in China is key to avoid unnecessary marketing costs.

There are a few fundamental ways in which digital marketing in China differs from the West.

  • Western digital marketing is website-based, Chinese digital marketing is multi-platform. This is a major difference with important repercussions for marketers. Companies in the West tend to organize their efforts in terms of bringing traffic and conversions onto their main platform, usually the official website or app. In China, companies need to organize their efforts to acquire traffic across different digital “superapp” platforms, each of which have their e-commerce conversion outlet.
  • Online traffic in the West is open, in China it is restricted across platforms. Each “superapp” effectively functions as a separate digital ecosystem where engagement of users, traffic and conversion buildings all happen within the system. Traffic from different platforms, say from WeChat to Tmall, or from Douyin to Little Red Book, is often restricted by the platform so tracking of consumer journeys across different platforms is difficult.
  • Marketing in the West is performance-driven, in China it is awareness-driven. This particularly applies to international companies whose brands are not well known in China. Capturing the attention of Chinese consumers simply through advertising is often ineffective, consumers need to be made aware about and trust the brand before they will take action. This is one of the reasons why the influencer marketing industry is so developed in China.

Social media marketing

 The knowledge of Chinese consumers about foreign products and brands is often limited, and a strong trust bond needs to be created between brands and consumers before purchase. This is why social media is a very popular way for companies to market themselves in China.

Companies can use social media through official content creation, social media advertising and influencer marketing.

Official content creation

Opening official brand accounts on Chinese social media is possible and somewhat akin to opening a Facebook, Instagram or Tik Tok account. Companies can grow an audience on local social networks and present them with their brand proposition and product information.

Possible options for international companies are to:

  • Open a WeChat Official Account. An official account on WeChat differs from a Western social media outlet in that it appears in the chat list of a user, who can browse through a list of articles created by the brand. Its advantages are that there is no limitation in size of these articles, so brands can expound their proposition fully to audiences. Its disadvantages are that WeChat is a closed ecosystem and such articles are only visible to the users who followed the Official Account, and to their friends should such user share them in their public feed.
  • Open a Douyin account. A Douyin account is similar to a Tik Tok account and brands can canvas their short videos to followers. Its advantages are that Douyin is an open ecosystem, so large audiences can be reached if the brand videos go viral. Its disadvantages are mainly due to the high effort of creating videos, so curating a Douyin account is costly and not practicable for every company.
  • Open a Little Red Book account. A Little Red Book account is similar to an Instagram account and brands can release photos, videos and story in a brand feed to their followers. Little Red Book is also an open ecosystem so virality is possible; however, creating high-quality content that caters to the taste of Chinese consumers is challenging and simply reposting global content might not be enough.
  • Open a Weibo account. A Weibo account is similar to Twitter and is suitable for short announcements. Weibo users are particularly sensitive to celebrity content on the platform, so content created by an international one, especially if new to the market, might not be appealing to the platform audience.

The standard on these platforms is that companies are registered with a Chinese legal entity and have a trademark registration in China, however there are procedures that allow international legal entities and trademarks to open accounts. Rules and regulations are best checked with a professional company specializing in social media marketing in China. There are also limitations to the type of company that can open accounts on social media, mostly in sensitive industries like finance or healthcare.

 Social media advertising

 All of the main social media platforms have advertising tools that allow companies to boost visibility of their official content and gain followers on their page.

Each platform has its own characteristics that are best checked in detail with professional company specializing in social media advertising in China. However, these are some general things to consider:

  • In order to place advertisements on social media, a company needs to have an account open. So social media advertising can only happen once and if a company has met requirements to open an account.
  • There are limitations to cross-platform advertising. Advertisements work best to drive more traffic to a company’s account inside the platform, and not so much in driving traffic outside (e.g. from WeChat to Tmall, or to a company’s official website).
  • Advertising costs are high and generally superior to Western platforms. Simply relying on paid traffic and audience building may not be enough to build strong visibility in the market.
 Influencer marketing

 The influencer industry in China is extremely developed and there are probably several bloggers or vloggers on each platforms that could be suitable to promote any international company and their brands and products.

Influencers in China are normally categorized as:

  • KOLs (or Key Opinion Leaders) – These are influencers with a large audience who are running their accounts professionally
  • KOCs (or Key Opinion Consumers) – These are smaller influencers who may or may not run their accounts professionally. Technically any user with a social following could be considered a KOC in China.

Influencer marketing in China is best done through the help of a professional company offering these services in the country. However, these are some general things to consider:

  • Most influencers, especially KOLs with a considerable audience, are running a commercial enterprise and many are represented by agents called MCNs (or Multi-channel Networks). Engaging with an influencer is not an informal activity as it may be in other countries, but rather a promotion activity that may be accompanied by the signature of an official contract.
  • Product seeding in exchange of visibility is not a viable practice in China. While it may be possible to gift an influencer with a product, visibility is only guaranteed upon payment of fees and only at strict conditions that are often decided by the influencers or their agents.
  • Cost are variable but can easily climb up. A collaboration with a top KOL can easily cost in the realm of millions of Euros, so proper checks and negotiations need to be conducted with influencers or their agents before starting an influencer campaign in China.

 Marketing for e-commerce

 E-commerce in China is dominant and for many companies, international and local alike, e-commerce sales may end up constituting the majority of the business in the market. This is the reason why companies’ substantial budgets are allocated to marketing for e-commerce in China.

The main e-commerce platforms, namely Taobao/Tmall and JD, have extremely sophisticated marketing tools that allow companies to drive traffic and conversion on their stores. Also other apps, like WeChat, Douyin and Little Red Book, offer solutions to create sales on their own e-commerce like on WeChat Miniprogram, or on Douyin and Little Red Book stores.

Creating a successful e-commerce marketing strategy is a complex endeavor that takes planning and testing and is best conducted with the help of a professional company offering e-commerce services in China. However, these are some general points to remember when marketing for e-commerce:

  • Different marketing strategies need to be created for different platforms. Each Chinese e-commerce platform has its own marketing tools and traffic is often restricted between platforms, so companies need to organize their efforts to create traffic from within the platform onto their store on the platform.
  • Awareness marketing needs to be preferred to performance marketing. Companies need to focus on creating brand and product visibility before trying to convert it. Each platform offers its own tools for awareness, including KOLs and KOCs that are active on the platform and can be engaged to promote the company’s products.
  • Livestreaming and new promotion tools are a must-try. Consumers are very sensitive to activities that combine entertainment and shopping, like livestreaming. Most platforms have livestreaming functionalities and a wide number of influencers that professionally run livestreaming to promote brands and their products.
  • Price is the most important attraction points for consumers. Chinese consumers react very elastically to price, so the most effective type of marketing activities are those that focus on discount. Promoting during the platforms’ shopping festivals, where products are generally discounted, is particularly important for companies selling online.

 Website and search marketing

Search marketing is a major way in which companies promote themselves in the West, however it is not a preferred marketing tool in China. The reason for this is Chinese prefer visiting local mobile apps like Taobao or WeChat to websites, so official websites are not the main target of a company’s marketing strategy in China.

While not a primary concern of many, companies still create Chinese-language official websites, especially for B2B purposes and to add another touchpoint to their multi-channel approach to China’s digital ecosystem.

In order to promote traffic to official websites, companies can use search engines in ways that are similar to global search engines. Like for social media and e-commerce, also for search China has its own local platforms that substitute Google, which is not accessible in China. Baidu is the main search engine in China, and among international platforms, Bing is also available as an option.

Promoting via search engine can be done in two main ways. Firstly, companies can purchase keywords that are typed by users in the search engine. While effective if a keyword is popular and the company has a strong claim on it, for many keywords search volume is too low to obtain significant traffic. Alternatively, platform offer promotion packages so the company and their website link appear in sections of the search website or app like billboard advertisements

Dos and Don'ts

The Chinese digital market is an enormous opportunity for global companies, but it is also an important challenge that requires preparation and resilience.

As a final section in this guide, here is a list of 10 positive and 10 negative recommendations to foreign companies entering the Chinese digital ecosystem. These are based on the experience of many successful and unsuccessful digital launches in China, but of course need to be applied to the specific conditions and objectives of each company.

The 10 dos of the Chinese internet

  • Research well the market before entering. The Chinese e-commerce is a vast market with further room for growth, however some industry categories might be more crowded or difficult to access than expected for regulatory or cultural reasons. Assessing the real size of the market is key to ensure proper planning.
  • Make a long-term plan. Companies should commit to a long-term investment if they are to succeed in China, and digital provides little shortcut on this. A realistic business plan for e-commerce in China aims at achieving breakeven not earlier than at the end of the second year of operations.
  • Choose suitable platforms based on category and budget. There are several platforms and collaboration modes available for companies looking to launch online in China. Some, like cross-border e-commerce, might have lower setup costs than others so a proper comparison is needed before starting.
  • Run a compliance and legal check before starting. Like every other market, being compliant with local rules and regulations is a must in China. Lack of legal preparation, especially in fields like trademark registration or taxation, can come with costly consequences and legal risks.
  • Allocate sufficient budget for the project. Launching a digital business can bring important returns in the long run, but ample resources need to be allocated before fruits can be reaped. A company should ensure budget allocation for at least 3 years for a full digital project in China.
  • Assign the project to dedicated resources internally. Even if execution of e-commerce and marketing operations is outsourced to an external vendor, a China digital project requires great efforts on the company’s side in terms of asset preparation and approval. Ideally companies will have a full-time team internally dedicated to this.
  • Increase awareness before chasing conversion. In the first phases of a digital project in China, most resources and efforts may have to be dedicated to increase brand awareness. Focusing on conversion is often unrealistic, especially for companies and brands that are new to the market.
  • Listen to consumer feedback. Chinese online consumers are curious to try new things and love to write review about new products and brands. Listening to these feedback could provide precious hints on how to improve the product and its presentation to future consumers.
  • Localize offering and content for the market. China’s online consumers consume content in a unique way that may require foreign companies to rethink their branding and selling proposition. Successful foreign companies often also modify their products and packaging to better appeal to Chinese e-commerce shoppers.
  • Adjust swiftly to digital trends and innovations. The Chinese digital landscape changes often and new platforms or engagement mechanisms emerge constantly. Observing and adopting these new trends and innovations may provide untapped opportunities, and sometimes even produce results at a lower cost than traditional marketing.

The 10 don’ts of the Chinese internet

  • Do not assume market size. Looking at the sheer size of the Chinese e-commerce, a common fallacy is to assume great results can be quickly obtained in terms of audience and sales. The market is vast but crowded with competitors, many of which have been in the market and investing great sums for a long time.
  • Do not adopt Western thinking to the Chinese web. Treating China like “just another market” is unlikely to produce successful results. The Chinese digital ecosystem is made of unique platforms and characteristics that need to be understood and may force companies to rethink global strategies when entering China.
  • Do not launch before all legal requirements are met. Some legal procedures, especially regarding trademark registration or license issue, have waiting times that may collide with the urgency of business plans. However, it is recommended to prioritize legal compliance to avoid costly consequences and legal risk.
  • Do not expect results in the short term. A realistic online business plan should expect to obtain profitability not earlier than 2 years after launch. Trying to maximize profit in the first stage of a China project is not only impracticable, but it may even hinder future growth as companies may overly focus on discounts, thus damaging brand positioning.
  • Do not underestimate Chinese digital marketing costs. A common mistake is to assume China’s marketing costs being lower than in the West, where the opposite is true. Companies should always keep a pessimistic approach to budgeting to avoid incurring in costs that are higher than expectations and plans.
  • Do not run a China project without a team. A China digital project is a complex and important operation that requires strong endorsement inside a company of any size. Companies should ensure sufficient team resources are allocated to support a China launch.
  • Do not overestimate product selling proposition. Companies, especially those that have been very successful in foreign markets, may tend to assume their product will naturally do well in China. While this may be the case, existing competitors or cultural and consumption differences may make the product less poised to success.
  • Do not replicate global offering and content in China. Simply translating global branding and content into Chinese may not be sufficient to succeed in China. Instead, companies should consider creating content and assets specifically for the Chinese market, and even changing their products and packaging to fit market taste and needs.
  • Do not execute an inflexible plan. While keeping a long-term strategic vision is important when entering China, foreign companies should allow for flexibility in the way they reach their goals. The Chinese digital landscape is constantly changing, and companies may be required to adjust activities to adjust to these changes.
  • Do not get discouraged at the initial difficulties. Very few companies obtain immediate results when launching a China digital project. Companies who commit to a China project should be prepared to be resilient, especially during the initial difficulties, so they can endure till the moment when success can be reaped.


E-Commerce in China

Chinese E-commerce at a glance

China is the world’s biggest e-commerce market. With around 2.8 trillion USD sales made online in 2021, the Chinese online economy is over 3 times bigger than that of the United States. China is also the only country in the world where most purchases happen online and not offline.

The Chinese e-commerce stands out not only in size, but also in the way Chinese consumers shop online. First, the overwhelming majority of online purchases in China are made on mobile and on mobile apps like Taobao or JD, while only a minority of users purchase on websites.

Secondly, users’ eagerness to consume content online makes online buying a type of entertainment more than a necessity. Online consumers are very sensitive to recommendations by influencers and in user reviews, and video content like livestreaming is often the trigger to shopping behaviors.

Finally, Chinese users are very sensitive to price incentives when buying online. The majority of online sales in China occur during “shopping festivals” organized by the main apps where products are heavily discounted.

In a nutshell, these are the characteristics of e-commerce in China:

  • Users buy mostly from mobile on local shopping apps;
  • Users are very receptive towards content about products and their features;
  • Online influencers and livestreaming are key ways to initiate interest towards making a purchase online;
  • Consumers react very strongly to discounts and discount festivals.

Singles’ Day and online shopping festivals

The Chinese online buyers value price over anything else. While there is a growing number of sophisticated consumers who are willing to pay more for uniqueness of a product or brand, price is still the number 1 factor when Chinese consumers purchase online.

This sensitiveness to price has cultural roots and is not necessarily connected to purchasing power. China has a growing middle class and half of Chinese users spend over 1,000 USD a year online, more than many Western countries. However, they would also go at great length to find the most affordable available version of a product they like, and will be swayed to purchase if a product they like is discounted.

Such phenomenon is strongly encouraged by e-commerce platforms, who have created an entire calendar of “shopping festivals” during the year where products in store are discounted and where most online sales are generally made.

The most important of these festivals is Singles’ Day -also called 11/11- happening on November 11 each year. In 2021, the Singles’ Day sales of the two biggest e-commerce platforms combined, Taobao and JD, reached over 130 billion USD, an amount significantly bigger than the entire online economy of Luxembourg.

Other important shopping festivals are 618, happening on June 18, and 12/12, happening on December 12. However, trying to constantly spur online sales, e-commerce platforms in China have been constantly adding new festivals to their calendars, as well as making these festivals longer and longer, so that offers do not happen on a single day but rather stretch for a period up to 3 weeks before and after the day itself.

Preparing for shopping festivals is one of the main preoccupation of companies selling online in China, as the success of an entire year of business can be decided by the performance on these festivals. The focus on discount does not mean consumers buy low-priced products: the most performing categories on festivals are rather electronics, house appliances and apparel, especially of recognizable brands with high average ticket.

Cross-border e-commerce vs traditional e-commerce

Cross-border e-commerce (CBEC) is a regulatory framework that allows foreign companies to sell their products online in China without acting within the fiscal territory of China.

By launching online stores on platforms that support CBEC, companies can reach Chinese consumers greatly simplifying the preparation work in terms of logistics and bureaucracy. In 2021, including imports and exports CBEC in China reached a total market size of 14.6 trillion RMB (about $2.25 trillion), and has been growing steadily to become a valid alternative to traditional e-commerce in China.

Here are the main differences between e-commerce and CBEC in China.

Legal entity – To launch an online store in China, a company needs to have a legal entity registered in China. With CBEC, the company can use a foreign legal entity to sell directly to Chinese consumers.

Taxation – Selling online in China companies are subject to China import taxes and China retail VAT, whose amount varies depending on the product category. With CBEC, companies are subject to a single levy called “cross-border import VAT”, whose amount also varies but tends to be smaller than traditional e-commerce taxes.

Logistics – In traditional e-commerce, products need to be legally imported in China. With CBEC, products can be outside of China or physically but not fiscally in China in duty-free “bonded warehouses”. Import of the goods and payment of cross-border import VAT happens at the moment the consumer places the order.

Allowed products – Any products that are legally imported in China can be sold through traditional e-commerce. With CBEC, there are restrictions on the categories that can be sold to consumers, mostly related to medical devices and other sensitive product categories.

Others – Other advantages of CBEC over traditional e-commerce are that companies are not required to make modifications to the packaging of products in the original language, and that the only brand protection required Is a valid trademark registration in the home country.

E-commerce platforms in China

Here is a summary of the most noteworthy e-commerce platforms for both traditional and CBEC in China. These platforms and other alternatives are further described below.


Taobao is China’s biggest e-commerce app. Owned by Alibaba Group, it has over 900 million active users and over 10 million merchants on the platform.

Originally a C2C platform comparable to eBay, it is now a marketplace gathering all sorts of merchants, from established brands to individual sellers. Taobao has a complex ecosystem of connected platforms where consumers can interact with merchants and products in diverse ways, including livestreaming. Consumers pay on Taobao via Alipay, the mobile payment system owned by Alibaba Group.

Taobao is a preferred options for local vendors due to its low barrier of access and large userbase, however foreign companies tend to choose other platforms to sell online that can guarantee a higher degree of control and official status.


Tmall is the B2C platform of Alibaba. Because merchants and products selling on Tmall are also appearing on Taobao, Tmall can be considered as simply part of the Taobao ecosystem.

Tmall is a preferred option for international brands who want to establish a primary online store in China, as they can gain access to Taobao’s userbase while advertise themselves in an official way. To many companies, a Tmall official store in China is regarded as the equivalent of an official website in other markets.


Also known as Jingdong or, it is the second biggest e-commerce in China. Born as a marketplace for electronics, JD has expanded over the years and now caters to a wide audience selling products in several categories. It has over 580 million active users.

JD also has a multi-platform ecosystem, largely features livestreaming and has a calendar of discount-focused shopping festivals. Consumers pay via WeChat Pay, the mobile payment system owned by its shareholder Tencent Group.

Companies can open official stores on JD that appear and function in a similar way to a Tmall store.

Tmall Global / JD Worldwide

Both Tmall and JD have sections of their marketplaces dedicated to CBEC. These sections, called Tmall Global and JD Worldwide respectively, are the most common option for CBEC merchants.

Companies selling on Tmall Global and JD Worldwide are required to use an integrated logistics system and store products in bonded warehouses managed by the platforms. By following store opening and product listing procedures of the platforms, companies are already compliant to CBEC regulations.

For more official platform info on how to open a store on Tmall Global visit here (in English).

For official rules and eligibility about a store on JD Worldwide visit here (in Chinese).

WeChat Miniprogram

WeChat Miniprograms are not a platform per se but rather an interface that allows companies to create and manage apps inside WeChat, China’s biggest social networking app.

Miniprograms are highly customizable by the operating company and have the advantage of being connected to WeChat, so that users do not need to download a new app but can simply open the Miniprogram from within WeChat.

While all sort of Miniprograms can be designed, companies have widely used this interface to create online stores that live inside WeChat and can be connected to a company’s existing official WeChat account. A Miniprogram store allows users to pay for products via WeChat pay.

Other e-commerce platforms

There are of course many more e-commerce platforms that are popular within Chinese users, especially within specific product verticals. A few notable ones are Hema, a grocery app also owned by Alibaba Group; Suning Yigou, an e-commerce specialized in electronics and home appliances; Ctrip, China’s biggest online travel agency; Dewu, a fashion e-commerce popular among young consumers.

In addition, many Chinese social networking apps try to appeal to consumers becoming “superapps” which combine several functionalities including e-commerce inside a single app. Both Little Red Book and Douyin, two important social networks, have e-commerce functionalities and companies can consider selling on them especially if they already have official accounts open on the platforms that they use for marketing and communication purposes.

Selling via CBEC is technically possible on any platform as long as products are in a bonded warehouse that supports CBEC shipping, and they are registered in a special database of the Chinese Customs.

At the moment, however, CBEC on WeChat Miniprogram or another e-commerce platform in China is not as straightforward as Tmall Global or JD Global, and technical support by a specialist provide is required before a company is fully compliant with CBEC.

Finally, as the regulatory framework of e-commerce and CBEC in China is very dynamic and constantly updating, the above information is provided for reference only, and it is recommended to consult a specialist before committing to a CBEC project.




Legal Considerations

Legal considerations before entering China through digital

The Chinese digital ecosystem is increasingly regulated so information about procedures and necessary documents when opening e-commerce pages or social media accounts is relatively streamlined.

There are, however, a few aspects to consider in order to reduce legal risk and increase compliance when entering China through digital. It is recommended to seek professional legal advice before launching online in China, and the following are just initial considerations about legal documentation and other legal matters to further investigate.

Trademark registration

Having a valid trademark registration is a must for companies operating on digital channels in China. Apart from being requested by platforms when opening official accounts, a trademark registration provides a first important level of protection against copyright theft and counterfeits.

As a rule of thumb, when opening cross-border e-commerce shops or social media accounts using an overseas legal entity, the trademark registration in the home country or an international trademark registration is sufficient, while when opening local e-commerce shops and social media accounts, a trademark registration from Chinese authorities is required.

It is good practice for a company to anyway register its brands both in the home country and in China before operating in China.

Legal entity

A Chinese legal entity is required when opening a local e-commerce shop and social media accounts. Opening a Chinese legal entity comes with important responsibility including the appointment of a legal representative, the opening of a local bank account and the injection of registered capital in the company’s account.

Cross-border e-commerce (CBEC) provides a convenient alternative to open a legal entity. Through CBEC, the home country legal entity is sufficient to sell products directly to consumers in China.

ICP license

 According to Chinese regulations, any web domain located within China needs to be registered in a special directory and a special license called ICP license needs to be obtained. ICP licenses are released to Chinese legal entities and cannot be issued to foreign legal entities.

There are ways to get around this requirement, such as hosting a website in Hong Kong, however a company opening a Chinese website needs to open a local legal entity to be fully compliant with Chinese laws.

Online data privacy

Recent regulations called the China Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) have strictly regulated what type of user personal data can be collected by companies when operating on digital channels in China, how the data should be managed and which data can be transferred outside of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.

Companies looking to operate websites or other platforms in China are recommended to seek professional advice on PIPL regulations to reduce legal risk and be fully compliant with Chinese laws.

Other licenses

Depending on the industry and type of business a company is in, more special licenses might be required by the platforms and the authorities to open e-commerce shops, social media accounts or to run advertisements online. For example, alcoholic beverages, cosmetics, food are all categories that require additional licenses from relevant government bureaus.

In general, regardless of the industry, a company looking to operate on digital channels in China is recommended to run a due diligence with a legal professional in China before starting operations in the market.

Social Media in China

Social Media in China and its characteristics

Despite its enormous territory and population, China is one of the most connected countries in the world, and one of the countries where social media are used the most. Of its total online population of over 1 billion people, over 930 million have at least one social account open and 99.9% of them connect to social media via mobile.

Chinese people’s enthusiasm for social networking has cultural and social roots. At the inception of the internet in China, users were mostly internal migrants wanting to get in touch with relations far away or looking to make new friends online, and still today users heavily rely on social media to enrich their personal connections. China is the only country in the world where people say they have more friends online than offline.

Also importantly, Chinese have leapfrogged to social media as a preferred source of entertainment and information, discarding traditional media that are still important in the West. An average Chinese only reads 4.7 paper books a year compared to 12 books read in the US, but over half China’s population spends at least half an hour reading online every day.

Another striking characteristic is Chinese internet users love not only to consume content online, but also to create it. This has been connected to the need of self-expression which, especially in the youngsters, is often reined in by the strong grasp the government has on society. China has the world’s biggest number of online influencers, which have been estimated to be reaching 15 million by 2023.

These are the main features of Chinese social media and their users:

  • Users predominantly use local social networks. This is due to government restrictions and relatively foreign language proficiency;
  • Users predominantly connect via mobile, and prefer mobile-native social apps like WeChat to platforms that are designed for the computer like blogs;
  • Users are extremely eager to consume and create content on social media;
  • Social media very rarely specialize in a single functionality (like video sharing, microblogging, etc) but rather combine many single functions to achieve the status of “superapps”.

Social networks as “superapps”

One of the most apparent difference between Western and Chinese social networks is that while in the West apps are designed with a unique key functionality, in China they tend to combine many different functions under a single platform. Compelling examples of Western single-function apps are Snapchat or Twitter, which are chosen by Western users especially because of their very vertical design.

In China, the strong receptiveness of users towards internet innovation paved the way for a completely different app market development. Social networks would gain popularity for a new feature like in the West, but they would soon start to add new functionalities to gather traction with investors and users.

Given the flourishing online shopping market of China, e-commerce is often the preferred functionality added. This is what has happened with WeChat, which created the WeChat Miniprogram interface to allow companies to open e-commerce stores inside the platform. Other social media apps like Douyin or Little Red Book have also followed with their e-commerce solutions.

The ultimate objective of Chinese apps is becoming “superapps” that can satisfy every need of the consumer (and potentially supplant all other apps), so lifestyle functions are also commonly added. On WeChat, originally just a mobile chat app, users can pay online and offline purchases with WeChat Pay, pay their utility bills other taxes, call a taxi and even showcase their “green code” for COVID-19 contact tracing and prevention. Alipay, originally just the payment system of Taobao and Tmall, has grown to include chat and social networking functions, and even launched its own Miniprogram interface for third-party companies to develop any sort of apps living inside the platform.

Social Media platforms in China

Here is a summary of the most noteworthy social media platforms in China. These platforms and other alternatives are further described below.


WeChat is China’s most important social network. With over 1.3 billion users as of March 2022, it is practically used by the entire active population of China and is an essential tool in the life of any contemporary Chinese.

More than just a social media, WeChat is a “superapp” that incorporates a series of functionalities including chat, news and articles, web browser, payment, financial services, public services and utilities, and many more.

Local and international companies commonly utilize WeChat to publicize their brand and their products. The most common actions companies can take on WeChat is to open an Official Account, a content outlet to create articles promoting themselves, and to create a WeChat Miniprogram, a customizable app that can have many functions including e-commerce and is opened directly inside WeChat.


Douyin is a video sharing app and the Chinese version of Tik Tok, developed and owned by the same technology company ByteDance. Despite being similar to Tik Tok in many ways, it is technically a different platform whose content and accounts are separate and not mutually accessible.

In China, Douyin has over 800 million users as of June 2022 and has witnessed a staggering growth in the past years following the growing interest in video consumption and short videos. It is one of the platform responsible for popularizing livestreaming, with 86.8% of its users streaming live content.

Little Red Book

Little Red Book, also known as Xiaohongshu or RED, is a content sharing app similar in functionalities and appearance to Instagram. It has 300 million active users as of March 2022.

Like Instagram, it is a platform favored by influencers who create compelling content for large audiences. Around 43 million people actively share content on the platform, both in the form of articles and livestreaming. Little Red Book has also recently launched an e-commerce section on its platform.


Alipay is not a social network per se but rather a “superapp” with some social networking functions. It is used by around 900 million people.

Originally an payment app created by Alibaba Group to support payments on Taobao and Tmall, it is now encompasses a wide range of functions and services similar to that of WeChat. Also similarly to WeChat, Alipay allows third-party functions to create customizable Miniprograms that take advantage of several functions already existing on the platform, including payment.


Kuaishou is another popular video sharing app with almost 600 million users as of February 2022.

Its functionalities are quite similar to Douyin, as active users spend over two hours a day watching video content and livestreaming. Like Douyin, Kuaishou has created its own e-commerce section where livestreamed products can be purchased directly by viewers.


Weibo is a microblogging platform, similar to Twitter in functionalities, and is the only significant social network still active that predates the advent of smartphones in China.

Once the most popular social network in China, it has now fallen out of favor among many users but still reports over 580 million active users as of March 2022.

Like Twitter, Weibo is still widely used by celebrities, famous entrepreneurs or opinion leaders to make short communications about their activities or opinions about public events.

The Chinese Digital User

A profile of China’s internet users

Chinese people use the internet in a very different way from their Western counterparts.

This is due to a series of regulatory, socioeconomic and cultural factors that need to be briefly expounded. First of all, as the Chinese Government restricts access to many foreign social networks and websites (including Facebook, Instagram and Google), users mostly connect to local websites and apps.

Secondly, the advent of the internet in the 2000s make Chinese leapfrog directly to the most advanced form of internet device, the smartphone, without going through the computer phase. As over 99.7% internet users connect via smartphone, they prefer to connect to apps, which are designed for phones, instead of websites, which are best viewed on big screens.

Thirdly, there are some cultural particularities that make Chinese people particularly eager to use new technologies, as well as create and consume content online. Most internet innovations including e-commerce, mobile chatting and mobile payments took radically less time to achieve widespread usage in China than in the West. As an example, mobile payment, which originated in China with a platform called Alipay, took only 4 years to achieve 50% user penetration; in many Western countries Apple Pay or other mobile payment systems are yet to achieve significant usage penetration.

There are of course important differences among demographics, geographic locations and ethnic groups within China, however the general characteristics of Chinese digital users are the below:

  • Overwhelming preference towards consuming Chinese-language content on local platforms;
  • Overwhelming preference towards mobile over computer access;
  • Great curiosity for new internet technologies and apps. The average Chinese consumer has 65 apps installed in their phone, which is much more than the 40 apps of the global average;
  • Very high eagerness to create and consume online content. The average Chinese consumer spends 4.1 hours on their phone every day, higher than the 3.5 hours of the global average;
  • Extremely high interest in online shopping. Around 85% of all online purchases are made via mobile device.

China: the first cashless society

The predilection of Chinese users for mobile devices and online shopping has given rise to a most striking phenomenon: Chinese do not use cash anymore.

This is not only true for online payments, which make up over half of total payments in the country, but also for offline payments, which are made using the extremely widespread mobile apps Alipay or WeChat Pay. As over half of the world’s online payments occur in China, some analysts suggest China has already reached the status of cashless society. The Chinese Government is also leading globally in the development of an official online currency, the e-CNY, which is already being tested in society and is set to ultimately replace the paper and coin currency.

The swift diffusion of mobile payments is once again connected to the phenomenon of leapfrogging, as Chinese directly jumped from a cash-based society to the most advanced trends, mobile payments, without passing through the phases of bank cards or credit cards. For companies engaging with Chinese consumers, the main implication of a cashless behavior is that offline purchases are often complemented with the online action of payment, so potentially every interaction with consumers in China is considered to be online-to-offline (O2O).

Chinese users’ thirst for content

Another unique feature of Chinese online users is their willingness to interact and consume content online.

Every day, a staggering 45 billion messages are sent on WeChat, China’s main social networking app. Users spend over 1 hour a day watching videos on Douyin, the Chinese version of Tik Tok. Over 2.2 trillion GB of mobile data is consumed in China every year.

The Chinese users’ thirst for content makes them particularly sensitive to product and shopping recommendations made online. China is the only place in the world where people trust online reviews more -3 times more- than recommendations made by friends in the physical world. This has favored the birth of a flourishing influencer economy; with over 15 million online influencers by 2023, China has more professional bloggers and vloggers than anywhere else in the world.

Most peculiarly, China was the birthplace of a new online shopping phenomenon, the livestreaming.

Similar in format to a telemarketing activity but held on an e-commerce app, the livestreaming spread due to the COVID-19 outbreak as a substitution for offline commerce and is now the new standard for online shopping in China. In 2021, over 600 million users watched over 75 million livestreaming sessions, which generated around 13.6% of all e-commerce sales in the country (and around 4.2% of all sales in the country).

The livestreaming economy is already an established reality in China, and successful foreign companies are widely resorting to this technique. Apart from pushing foreign companies to explore livestreaming in their marketing mix, this should serve as a caution of how fast the internet landscape is changing, and the need to be informed about the latest trends before entering the Chinese market.


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