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China dotcom giant launches English language service

Will you QQ? The popular Chinese instant message service is launching in English, French and Japanese.
Will you QQ? The popular Chinese instant message service is launching in English, French and Japanese.
  • Tencent is a Chinese Internet company with a hugely popular instant message service
  • Around 90% of China's online population use it
  • Company will launch English, French and Japanese language versions
  • Some analysts doubt it will be as popular with Western social media users

(CNN) -- Tencent, the world's third largest Internet company by market share, launched its popular instant messenger service in English, Japanese and French.

The launch of QQi Instant Messenger is an international version of its Chinese QQ instant messaging services, which has 600 million subscribers -- the largest instant messaging subscriber base in the world.

Versions in Korean, Spanish and German are planned to be released early next year, a company spokesperson said. Tencent is also planning the release of its first English language social networking site in early 2011.

Marc Violo, product manager for QQi, said the launch marks a tentative step toward bringing products from the hugely popular Chinese Internet company to an overseas audience.

"We have no intention of trying to compete with Skype or MSN instant messenger," Violo said.

We're looking to expand our reach outside of China to get involved with people who are interested in China
--Marc Violo, product manager, QQi

"We're looking to expand our reach outside of China to get involved with people who are interested in China."

Already QQ has users in 212 countries, most of who come from the U.S. and Europe, Violo told CNN. Tencent has partnered with popular English-language web sites in China -- such as travel provider CTrip and state-run newspaper China Daily -- to draw more traffic from overseas consumers.

"And if you want to instant message someone living in China, you have access to 92 percent of the online population here," Violo said.

The company is also working on a partnership with Canada-based StumbleUpon, a content discovery service company. QQi hopes to have "between 7 and 10 million subscribers" by September, Violo said.

A beta version, released last year targeting expatriates living in China, has 2 million subscribers.

Tencent is not the only Chinese Internet company with international ambitions. Baidu, China's largest search engine, launched a search service in Japan several years ago.

The company has plans to expand into other regions, including Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, according to Baidu spokesperson Kaiser Kuo.

"We are looking at markets where Google is not dominant," Kuo said. "Our preference is for markets with languages that are not Latin-based, so we have a leg up there."

For sure, I think all of the chats are monitored by QQ.
--Lu Gang, co-founder, OpenWeb.Asia
  • Asia
  • China
  • Internet
  • Science and Technology

In November, Baidu CEO Robin Li said he hoped that in 10 years, the Chinese search giant would become a household name in 50 percent of the world.

With Chinese Internet companies' plans to do business abroad also come challenges that analysts say they are unsure China's domestic web giants will ultimately ever be able to overcome.

The obstacles relate to the Internet censorship policies inside China that require companies to monitor and remove sensitive content from websites and block user behavior deemed inappropriate, political or otherwise.

"This is one of the key issues for all of these really rich Chinese Internet companies trying to go overseas," Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based independent media consultant, said.

"When they go into developing markets, it is one thing (because) there is a less sophisticated user base. When they go into the United States, they are carrying a huge amount of baggage and Google added a few tons to that baggage last year."

Read more on Google in China

Companies, like Tencent, have no choice but to follow Chinese Internet law or be shut down. Tencent, for example, blocks chats or posts containing sensitive words from its servers.

"For sure, I think all of the chats are monitored by QQ," Lu Gang, co-founder of OpenWeb.Asia, a working group focusing on the Asian Internet industry.

"If you type in sensitive key words, the messaging will be blocked. I think more and more people realize the problem, but still no one will give up QQ because it is part of the Internet culture in China. If you are not using it, you will lose lots of contacts in your social life."

Most recently the company was involved in a high profile dispute with Qihoo 360, China's largest antivirus software provider, which alleged Tencent was scanning private data of its more than 600 million users. Tencent denied the allegations.

"This whole Qihoo 360 case only raises people's level of suspicion," Bill Bishop said.

"Tencent may feel it is a great company but what matters is if they can convince users they are safe and now that bar has been raised significantly."

Violo said he believes this can be done.

"Most people don't realize that QQ is a very large multinational that is listed on the stock exchange and has thousands of shareholders," the QQi project manager said.

"Everything needs to be transparent. Of course we are in China so the government can put pressure on the company, and of course we have to comply with certain subjects, which are sensible in China. But if you are not planning a coup d'état against the Chinese government using QQ, then QQ is a safe thing."

CNN's Kevin Voigt contributed to this report


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