Netflix joins ranks of U.S. tech companies admitting they can’t conquer China

Netflix joins ranks of U.S. tech companies admitting they can’t conquer China
Published: Oct 20, 2016 4:17 p.m. ET

China is a tricky market to navigate given its uncertain legal and regulatory environment


Netflix Inc. is the latest U.S. technology company to admit defeat in its ambition to conquer the Chinese market, joining a growing list of companies to be stymied by a challenging regulatory, legal and competitive environment.

The streaming giant said this week that it has decided not to attempt a full-service offering in China, preferring to work with local partners.

“The regulatory environment for foreign digital content services in China has become challenging,” Netflix said in its third-quarter letter to shareholders. “We now plan to license content to existing online service providers in China rather than operate our own service in China in the near term.”

Netflix is not alone. China is the biggest foreign market for U.S. companies, which are eager to tap the potential of the world’s most populous country and its second-biggest economy. But the nation of 1.38 billion people is famously tricky to navigate, after a rapid period of transformation that has changed it from a source of cheap goods and semifinished products to a promising market with a burgeoning middle class that’s embracing consumer goods.

The country’s regulatory and legal framework has failed to keep pace with its economic boom, creating any number of road bumps for foreign players. In its 2016 membership survey, the U.S.-China Business Council found 67% of those polled citing the policy and regulatory environment as the biggest issue impacting their five-year outlooks, ahead of domestic market growth and the competitive environment.

“At the same time, market and policy headwinds have slowed investment overall,” the report found. “Fewer companies are accelerating investment in China—although the number reducing investment remains small.”

‘More and more we see that China is developing separately from the rest of the world. In internet, tech, media — there’s a separate ecosystem for what happens inside China and what happens outside China.’
Amy Wendholt, Apco Worldwide

The top 10 challenges cited by companies include the exhausting red tape involved in acquiring licenses, the uneven enforcement of rules, the difficulty of hiring and dealing with workers who are used to being told exactly what to do, restrictions on foreign investment, competition with local players, overcapacity and a lack of transparency.

“Three years after China announced significant reform goals, most American companies are not seeing significant changes in the business environment,” the report found.

Danielle Bailey, head of Asia-Pacific research and data partnerships at research company L2 Inc., said U.S. companies need to show the Chinese government they are bringing something it can capitalize on, such as new technology or expertise.

“The government will be a large barrier to anyone entering that market,” she said. “Unseating an established player is difficult, and if there’s nothing in it for the Chinese there’s no reason for them to open their doors.”

A step backward

Some high-profile companies have come a cropper in China of late, including Yum Brands Inc., which had long enjoyed significant success. The operator of the fast-food chains Pizza Hut and KFC is preparing to spin off its China business after some strategic missteps that decimated sales. In one instance, Yum introduced a premium steak product at Pizza Hut during the Chinese currency devaluation of 2015. It was also battered by a food-safety scandal when a prominent supplier was found to be selling meat that was out of date.

Then there’s Caterpillar Inc., the maker of diggers and dozers, which made a big bet on China that turned out to be badly mistimed, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week. Caterpillar invested billions of dollars in plants and equipment starting in 2010 to take advantage of a global commodities boom, which quickly became a rout as oil prices fell and Chinese growth slowed. The company is facing a fourth straight year of declining sales — 24 straight quarters — the longest such period in its history.

Wood-flooring retailer Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. was all but crushed when laminates sourced from China were found to contain unacceptably high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogenic, after local producers flouted U.S. rules on air quality.

Last month, ride-sharing service Uber Technologies Inc. decided to sell its Chinese operation to Didi Chuxing, marking the end of its costly and unprofitable effort to establish a foothold there. The move came after regulators passed rules that would prevent companies from offering competitive subsidies, which had been Uber’s main method of attracting drivers to its service in China.

“There were already two competitors, both of which have venture-capital backing,” said L2’s Bailey.

The deal has brought together a strange group of rivals. Didi had a partnership with Lyft Inc., a rival of Uber, as part of a global ride-hailing coalition. Lyft said it would be re-evaluating that partnership after Didi’s investment in Uber. It also draws in Apple Inc., which had invested $1 billion in Didi, as a kind of partner with both Uber and Lyft.

Censorship challenge

Apple’s troubles in China run the gamut, from patent disputes to a crackdown on its iBooks and iTunes movie service on the grounds that it doesn't have the correct licenses. Most big U.S. tech companies have fallen foul of China’s ever-changing rules and its censorship restrictions; Alphabet Inc. quit the country in 2010 after its search, Gmail, Google maps, YouTube and Google Play services were blocked and attacked by government-backed hackers.

‘You can’t have a mission to want to connect everyone in the world and leave out the biggest country.’
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Facebook Inc. has been blocked in China since 2009, and its photo-sharing service Instagram was cut off in 2014. Founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has made clear his ambition to get into China, even hosting a Q&A with students in Mandarin in 2014. On the company’s third-quarter 2015 earnings call, Zuckerberg said: “You can’t have a mission to want to connect everyone in the world and leave out the biggest country.”

With U.S. companies locked out of internet services, local companies have rushed to fill the void, encouraged by a government that is eager to build domestic champions.

“More and more we see that China is developing separately from the rest of the world,” said Amy Wendholt, Hong Kong managing director for the public-relations firm Apco Worldwide. “In internet, tech, media — there’s a separate ecosystem for what happens inside China and what happens outside China.”

The government has been trying to create its own semiconductor industry, for example, since the 1990s, according to the consultant McKinsey & Co., initiatives that failed because they were more focused on academia and research.

China still represents an important market for U.S. chip makers. China’s biggest tech companies are consumers of chips in products like computers and notebooks made by giants like Lenovo Group Ltd. and networking gear and smartphones developed by Huawei Technologies.

“Most if not all of high-end and midrange Chinese phones, computers and servers contain U.S.-designed silicon,” said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, in an email.

Moorhead cited an unusual joint venture that Intel Corp. INTC announced in January, to work with Tsinghua University and Montage Technology Global Holdings on the development of a special programmable chip that would be used right along with one of Intel’s Xeon processors in servers in data centers, which would act to “preserve the intellectual property of both parties.”

That kind of partnership may prove a sound approach to gaining entry to China, where domestic companies can provide the network of contacts and approvals needed to get things done. Above all, companies need to do the research to understand the Chinese consumer and adapt to local customers.

Finding a partner

One company that has succeeded in China is Nike Inc., which is riding a number of global trends to success, including China’s gradual embrace of sports and athleticism and the popularity of the NBA.

“It’s a stand-alone global brand with premium positioning that the Chinese recognize,” said Bailey. “It’s something that the Chinese can’t readily replicate.”

Netflix has clearly understood the need for a partner if it wants to overcome its main obstacle since it embarked on a global expansion earlier this year. There are now a number of streaming competitors in China, starting with Tmall Box Office, an Alibaba Group Holding Inc. business with a model that is very close to that of Netflix.

“In addition, there’s Youku Tudou (owned by Alibaba), PPTV, iQiyi,, Sohu Video, LeTV, Tencent TV,, Sina Video, CBox, and Funshion,” Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a recent note. China, the analysts noted, requires SVOD, or streaming video-on-demand, services to source 70% of content in China. “We think Netflix would need a partner to enter China successfully,” they wrote.

Netflix shares were up another 1.1% Thursday, and have gained 8% in the year so far, while the S&P SPX, -0.14%  has gained about 5%.

Additional reporting by Tonya Garcia, Therese Poletti, Claudia Assis and Tomi Kilgore.


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