Fans in China lament the release of Airbnb and Kindle

Hayami Wang, a high-tech worker, began her career in Beijing, where she worked long hours in sterile office buildings.

Before leaving the capital in 2019, she decided to soak up more of the local culture by booking a room in a traditional courtyard through the American short-term rental site Airbnb.

“Everyone was talking on the terrace. It was autumn, the most beautiful season to be in Beijing,” Wang said. “Up there, we could see other people’s yards with their apricot trees and persimmons. It was quite special. »

On July 30, Airbnb to shut down domestic travel services in China, blaming pandemic-related travel restrictions; Kindle also said it would stop operating its e-book store in China in June 2023. The company didn’t give a reason.

“I feel sad and lost,” Wang said. “Airbnb is not just a tool for travel accommodation. It is a window for me to communicate with locals [Chinese] people.”

Li Yao with her Kindle., which she credits with cultivating her reading habit. (Courtesy of Li Yao)

The pair of announcements follow departures from LinkedIn and Yahoo. Both companies cited a tougher business and regulatory environment in China after the adoption of laws protecting privacy and data. Their decision also comes amid ongoing tensions between the United States and China.

There is a difference between content-heavy companies, such as LinkedIn and Yahoo, and Airbnb and Kindle, according to US technology journalist Du Chen of independent Chinese news site PingWest.

“[Content-heavy companies] are inherently platforms for discovering new information. Some of this information may not be suitable for dissemination on the Chinese internet,” Du said.

All major tech companies, Chinese or foreign, are required to moderate and censor user content. These are the same reasons why Google, Twitter and Facebook do not conduct their core business in China.

An Airbnb Hayami Wang stayed in Shanghai over the weekend to explore downtown.
Hayami Wang stayed at this Airbnb rental in Shanghai for a weekend to explore downtown. On weekdays, she lives closer to her workplace in the suburbs. (Courtesy Wang)

Du said content moderation is not a big concern for an accommodation site such as Airbnb. Even for Kindle, despite the many content restrictions for books in China, much of that would be done at the publishing level before the books could be sold on Kindle’s online store.

E-reader reviewer Zhishusang said Kindle’s e-bookstore has the largest collection of foreign-language books in the Chinese market. For the most part, Airbnb and Kindle have been able to compete freely in China.

Airbnb entered the Chinese market in 2016 and was credited with popularizing the concept of home rentals for short stays in the country. In 2017, Amazon executives cited China as the biggest market for its Kindle e-bookstore.

faux pas

If you ask Airbnb and Kindle fans, American companies haven’t followed in the footsteps of Chinese technology and are spending a lot of money to acquire users.

“The strategy of many Chinese companies is to flood the market with free services. Once customers get used to their services, the company will start charging,” said Kindle fan and former Kindle China employee Li Yao. “Kindle only sells books one by one. It doesn’t fit the marketing logic in China.

While e-reader reviewer Zhishusang loves Kindle’s ecosystem and has even written a book on how to use the device to study better, he said the US firm hasn’t kept up with its Chinese rivals.

“Chinese e-readers meet the demands of home users, such as having an open system, devices that can read multiple file formats and run third-party apps.”

In a country where more than 77% of adults surveyed last year read on their mobile phones, Kindle devices are seen as useful weights for holding the lids of instant noodle cups.

“More people will treat it as a joke rather than a real serious product for reading,” Du said.

A screenshot of Kindle's official online store on Alibaba's Tmall in 2019 featured a tagline building on the joke that its devices are best used as weights for instant noodle cups:
Kindle’s official online store on Alibaba’s Tmall in 2019 displayed a tagline building on the joke that its devices are best used as weights for instant noodle cups: “Your instant noodles will smell like books once that you will have covered them with a Kindle”. (Screenshot by Tmall via Socialone)

American companies have also made fundamental missteps.

Airbnb’s name in Chinese, Aibiying, sounds awkward to locals; its payment process was also problematic.

“For many years, Airbnb only accepted credit cards or bank transfers for payments in China, while correspondence and invoices were sent by email,” journalist Wang Tianyu said in a technology segment. on the public television channel CGTN. “It might work in the West, but not in China.”

Most people in China use mobile payment apps and communicate via WeChat.

While US companies have offices in China and have hired local staff, tech journalist Du said the companies don’t seem fully immersed in the Chinese market.

“They weren’t able to have the level of autonomy required to operate successfully in China,” he said.

Airbnb is not leaving China altogether. The US company said it would retain staff to help Chinese travelers go overseas.

Zhi Shusang seen with his Kindle.
Zhi Shusang with his Kindle. He was an early adopter of Kindle in China in 2014. (Courtesy Zhi Shusang)

Technician Hiyami Wang uses Airbnb’s household services until his last days. She currently lives in the suburbs of Shanghai for work, but on weekends she rents out Airbnb properties in the city center to explore.

Kindle China users will no longer be able to purchase new e-books after June 2023 and will have until June 2024 to download the books they have purchased and turn to local alternatives, such as WeRead from WeChat.

Die-hard Kindle fans, such as former Kindle staffer Li Yao, remain loyal. She credits Kindle for instilling a reading habit in her. She and her friends dedicated an entire episode of their podcast — usually focused on couples in TV shows, movies and books — to discuss leaving Kindle as a kind of farewell.

“For me, Kindle is not just a reading device, it’s different from other reading devices,” she said.

The day she can’t use her Kindle, Li says, she won’t go to a Chinese competitor. “I prefer to read paperbacks rather than using other reading devices [from China].”

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

There’s a lot going on in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is there for you.

You rely on Marketplace to break down world events and tell you how it affects you in a factual and accessible way. We count on your financial support to continue to make this possible.

Your donation today fuels the independent journalism you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help maintain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.

James C. Tibbs