There Is No TikTok in China, Only Douyin. Here’s What It Is.

In China, there is no TikTok. There is only Douyin.

After President Biden signed a bill on Wednesday forcing Chinese company ByteDance to sell its ownership of TikTok, the United States moved one step closer to an internet without the short video app. The legislation opened the door to a possible ban of the social media platform if TikTok fails to find a U.S. government-approved buyer within a year.

Douyin is also owned by ByteDance. It is a staple of the Chinese internet the way TikTok is in the rest of the world. But because it has no presence outside China, Douyin, which means a “shaking sound” in Chinese, is not as well known globally.

But Douyin is critical to ByteDance’s finances. Its continued success will be a significant factor in how the parent company assesses what it plans to do with TikTok. Will ByteDance succumb to political demands from Washington, or will it refuse to sell TikTok and face the consequences?

Here is an overview of Douyin.

Douyin is the most popular short-video app in China, and it is one of the most visited social media platforms in the country. As on TikTok, the videos on Douyin appear in a vertical format and users swipe up to get to the next offering. There are other similarities to TikTok. The Douyin algorithm learns your interests from how you interact with the videos you are shown and feeds you an endless stream of content.

Douyin debuted in September 2016 in China, a year before ByteDance introduced TikTok for overseas markets. Initially, Douyin focused on China’s big cities where young smartphone users were early adopters of new social media. Douyin reached more than 700 million active monthly users in May, meaning it was being used by a majority of China’s internet users, according to QuestMobile, a Chinese data firm.

TikTok has more users on its platform, but Douyin is ByteDance’s cash cow. Roughly 80 percent of ByteDance’s $54 billion revenue in the first half of last year came from China, derived mainly from Douyin, according to The Information, a technology news site. The remaining 20 percent came from overseas markets mainly through TikTok.

Douyin is a thriving business in China. The biggest chunk of its profit comes from distributing online advertising alongside its library of video content. The research firm eMarketer estimated that Douyin took in $21 billion in advertising revenue in 2023, or about two-thirds of Alphabet’s ad revenue from YouTube.

But it might have even more potential. In China, almost all social media apps have shopping components, and Douyin is no exception. Douyin has opened its own online shopping mall inside the app where vendors sell clothes, electronics, groceries, brand-name goods and discount products. Every transaction generates a commission or service fee for Douyin.

One popular form of commerce is live video streams by influencers who peddle items to audiences — imagine Home Shopping Network meets a daily video blog. The transaction value of shopping conducted through livestreams on Douyin exceeded $200 billion in 2022, according to Statista, a data and business intelligence company in Germany.

E-commerce in China is growing fast, too. Douyin is already the country’s fourth-largest online retailer behind Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo, and it is growing much faster than those more established companies, according to eMarketer. Douyin’s online commerce sales grew an estimated 60 percent in 2023, eMarketer said.

To try to cash in on its traffic, Douyin announced an app called Douyin Mall last month for Android users in mainland China. The app is not in Apple’s App Store.

TikTok is available in more than 150 countries and regions in 75 languages, while Douyin can be used only in China. The two apps have many similar features, but they remain separate services. TikTok users can search for accounts all over the world, but they cannot gain access to Douyin accounts in China — and vice versa.

TikTok’s audience tends to be young, but Douyin has a much older user base in China. In fact, it is the most widely used and preferred app among Chinese people over 50 years old, according to a report released by QuestMobile, a research firm. Douyin introduced measures to prevent addiction for seniors, including voice reminders or forced interruptions to people who have been watching for too long.

Douyin has become a crucial platform for the Chinese authorities to disseminate information and propaganda. In 2018, Douyin teamed up with 11 government departments and media organizations to help improve content production to make their videos more effective at carrying their messages.

A senior official in The PLA Daily, the newspaper of China’s military, once wrote in an essay that there was an urgent need for military media to join Douyin because the platform had become “a new space and a new position for ideological competition between us and the enemies.”

Like other social media services in China, Douyin follows the censorship rules of the Chinese Communist Party. It conscientiously removes video pertaining to topics deemed sensitive or inflammatory by the party, although it has proved a little harder than text-based social media to control.

Among the things that have been restricted or removed so far this year are accounts of economists who spoke negatively about China’s economy, as well as short dramas about the conflicts between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. The latter seemed to portray interfamily relations in a dramatically negative way.

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