Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent: What Academic Publishers and Societies Need to Know about China’s Tech Giants
Academic publishers are attempting to make inroads in China, considering the country’s growing investment in R&D and research output, as covered in a previous post. However, China’s unique characteristics make localizing a comparatively challenging task for publishers. Building a digital presence in China requires them to pay attention and adapt to relatively unique local conditions. Publishers have to deal with not only the Great Firewall of China but also powerful and highly innovative Chinese tech companies. Among these, three leaders stand out: 1) Baidu, which excels in online searching and AI technology; 2) Alibaba, known for e-commerce and cloud computing; and 3) Tencent, leader in social media and gaming. This article provides an overview of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent—known as BAT—and what publishers and societies need to know about them while building a presence in China.
They’re big and getting bigger
Considering China’s population and the protection Chinese digital companies enjoy from international competitors, the BAT have amassed a digital empire. Baidu provides cloud storage, news, social media, virtual assistant, and legal research solutions, among others. Alibaba owns not just domestic and international retail and wholesale businesses but also logistics and supply chain management services, cloud services, and fintech services (Ant Group in the US) as well as one of China’s most prestigious newspapers, South China Morning Post. Tencent owns not just WeChat, China’s largest social media platform, but also mobile games, payment systems, video streaming, and e-commerce services. In 2021, Baidu Inc had a revenue of over USD 19.5 billion and Tencent revenue was over USD 83 billion. As of March 2022, Alibaba Group had a revenue of around USD 134.57 billion. The BAT are big not just by local standards but also international: in 2022, Tencent had a higher market value than Intel and IBM.
The BAT are also striving towards a larger international presence. Baidu has an R&D center based in California. Alibaba Group has a presence in multiple Western countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, and France (though its US business affiliate Ant Group is facing delisting in US markets). Tencent, which already owns data centers in the US and Canada and has a stake in a UK digital bank, is rumored to be expanding outside China more vigorously, particularly through gaming and cloud-based services. Moreover, Tencent has partnered with universities in the US, Hong Kong, and Singapore in setting up labs; it has also sponsored academic conferences both within and outside China, such as IEEE/CVF’s 2022 Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition Conference in New Orleans.
Their solutions are integral to China’s research and higher education ecosystem
Baidu Scholar, a free academic search platform along the lines of Google Scholar, is the leading search tool used by researchers in China (in fact, this has led the international publisher Wiley to enter into a license agreement with it). Baidu Research, which is co-located in Silicon Valley, includes laboratories in data science and data mining, robotics and autonomous driving, and business intelligence, all of which contribute research papers in these fields. Similarly, Alibaba Group’s Taobao set up its own “university” in 2018, which offers courses on building a digital business, and more recently has plans to launch another university that offers training on various service sectors like logistics, retail, and catering. Tencent’s WeChat is one of the main ways Chinese researchers access and disseminate research. This platform is also widely used for researcher networking, collaboration, and even crowdsourcing answers to questions about research. Some journals also use it for informal author communication; around 65% of journals indexed in the Chinese Social Sciences Citation Index have WeChat accounts.
They have a role in the Chinese government’s R&D ambitions
The Chinese government’s 14th Five Year Plan emphasizes innovation and technological self-reliance. And given the above facts about the BAT, it’s not surprising that they are playing a significant role in the Chinese government’s ambitions in regard to R&D. The BAT are fueling investment and setting up additional laboratories, especially in the field of AI. They are playing a significant role in the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s development strategy to build connectivity and cooperation across six main economic corridors both physically and digitally (known as the Digital Silk Road). Under the Digital Silk Road, China has also launched the University Alliance of the Silk Road, a higher education and research initiative that brings together over 130 universities across five continents. The BAT have heavily contributed to the Digital Silk Road and all its initiatives by developing internet infrastructure in the form of cloud services, payment services, etc.
Building a successful presence in a new market requires publishers and societies to understand not just its research ecosystem but also its overall digital landscape and economy. This is even more true of China, which is increasingly attracting the attention of leading publishers and journals as part of a long-term strategy to attract highly cited papers. As China’s share in the global research output grows, the products, services, and solutions from the BAT will not only play an increasingly important role within China’s research landscape but will also attract the attention of international publishing giants.
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