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What is a platform in China?

Over the past several years contributors working in and across different disciplinary fields have deliberated on the centrality of digital platforms to peoples’ lives. It is a truism to say we live in a digitally connected society; few of us go far without a smart phone. A book by van Dijck, Poell and de Waal (to be published November 2018) even announces ‘the Platform Society’. So-called ‘platform companies’ dominate the business landscape, from e-commerce (e-Bay, Amazon, Alibaba), to sharing economy (Airbnb, Uber), to social media, streaming and web searches (Facebook, Spotify, Google, Baidu, Instagram, Snapcat, Wechat). The competitive advantage of platform companies according to Johannes Koponen[i] is the ability to ‘continuously and exponentially improve, personalize and position their offerings via machine learning.’

Tarleton Gillespie (2016) defines platforms as follows: ‘sites and services that host public expression, store it on and serve it up from the cloud, organize access to it through search and recommendation, or install it onto mobile devices. They ‘host and organize user content for public circulation, without having produced or commissioned it.’

Srnicek’s term ‘platform capitalism’ (Srnicek 2017) neatly encapsulates the meteoric rise of platform companies. His definition includes the Internet of Things, Cloud Computing and sharing economy entities. Chinese academics meanwhile propose a more neutral term, the ‘platform economy.’  One Chinese sources offers a positive spin. The platform economy is allowing the logic of the former planned economy to transfer into a consumer driven society, the so-called ‘new normal’: whereby the potential market demand hidden in the long tail, can be exploited (Li 2015). In this utopian view, a better planned economy will eventuate. The concept of platform, and sharing economy envisages a shift from inefficient energy consuming state-owned enterprises to people-powered enterprises. According to a 2017 government think-tank report from the Sharing Economy Research Institute, in 2016, 600 million Chinese people participated in the sharing economy.

One perspective gaining traction in the field concerns the relationship between platforms and infrastructure. Plantin et al (2018) say that both are correlated. Explaining the boom in platform studies among media researchers, they maintain that the computer industry’s architectural understanding of platforms is extended to web-based applications ‘whose technical architecture emphasizes the provision of connection, programmability, and data exchange with applications developed by others.’ (p. 295)

The internet, along with the World Wide web and cloud computing, and the infrastructures that are needed to realize the interfaces (connectivity) requires expansion and interoperability of networked infrastructure: in this the metaphor of ‘assemblages’ seems quite apt. The power of assemblages is maximized when they function as ‘systems’ that incorporate well-defined interfaces, for instance ‘communication circuits between sensors actuators, processors, storage media, and distribution networks.’ (Hayles 2017).

In China the dominant platforms are BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent); however, they are not the only contenders. More platform entities are arising to service an insatiable demand for online services. In this context it is necessary to understand how these new entities differ from their western liberal counterparts, and where and how they connect by way of internationalizing their services to overseas Chinese in particular.

So the discussion perhaps needs to focus on where and how these platforms align with their international counterparts, and how they are beholden to infrastructure, and government regulatory bodies.




Hayles, N. Kathleen (2017) Unthought: the Power of Conscious Nonconscious. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Koponen, Johannes (2017), ‘Rise and fall of the platform business’, DemosHelsinki, accessed 25 May 2018 at

Li, L (2015), ‘Platform economic development and the reform of government control pattern’ (in Chinese) Economist 7: 27 – 34.

Srnicek, Nick (2017) Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press




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