Over the last two years, the short-form video app, Tiki, has helped fill the void left by the 2020 ban on TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps in India. During the first half of this year, the app ranked as roughly the 10th most popular social app in India by downloads, according to the app analytics firm, Apptopia. Since its launch in February 2021, as many as 96% of Tiki’s lifetime downloads have been from India.
Tiki’s CEO and co-founder, Ian Goh, has frequently used the tagline “Make in India” to describe the app’s impact, citing the opportunities it’s opened up to rural Indian users. In one recent interview, Goh suggested the platform was meeting the needs of “real Indian content creators.” The app’s tagline mirrors the Narendra Modi government’s flagship “Make in India” initiative to boost manufacturing in the country.
But, like several apps that found success in the vacuum left after the Indian government’s crackdown, Tiki appears to be owned by a large Chinese tech firm, Joyy Inc.
A Rest of World audit of the Google Play store indicated that at least eight of the 100 most-downloaded free apps in India may be owned by large Chinese parent companies, such as ByteDance, Xiaomi, Alibaba, and Joyy. Each of these companies was targeted in the bans on more than 320 Chinese apps by the Indian government over the past two years. The audit is based on public corporate registration filings, analysis by professional mobile app analytics services, and previous local reporting.
These apps include short-form video apps Tiki and Zili, the video-streaming app PlayIt, music video-makers Noizz, Mast, and Mivo, and the ByteDance-owned streaming app Resso.
Several of these apps are registered under one-off developer names, with front-end holding companies in Singapore and the British Virgin Islands — a common practice among Chinese tech firms as a means of sidestepping taxation and domestic regulations.
As long as there is a market for Chinese mobile technology companies to operate in India, they will continue testing the waters, a number of market watchers told Rest of World. “You can't expect businesses to not go around whatever loopholes there are and use them to their advantage, whether they’re Indian or American or whether they’re Chinese, at the end of the day, the main motive is profit and growth,” Siddharth Pai, president of the Bengaluru-based VC firm, Siana Capital Management, told Rest of World.
Reporting by Rest of World highlights several links between Tiki and Joyy Inc., a Nasdaq-listed social media company headed by Chinese billionaire David Xueling Li. Joyy owns Bigo Technology, a Singapore-based social media company that has previously operated two now-banned short-form video apps in India: Bigo Live and Likee. Until as recently as January 20, 2022, the IP address of Tiki’s official corporate website listed Bigo Technology as its owner.
Tiki is the only app registered on Google Play under developer DOL Technology PTE, which was registered with the Singaporean government in July 2020, just weeks after the initial India ban. DOL Technology PTE is listed in the Singapore government’s corporate registry list at the same address as Hago SG, a social media platform from the Joyy portfolio. Tiki, Bigo Technology, and Joyy Inc. did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Tiki’s ownership.
The fact that some less popular Chinese apps continue to operate within India, while the more popular ones are banned, comes as no surprise to Sameer Patil, a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Mumbai. Patil, who focuses on the intersection of technology and national security, told Rest of World, “The government concentrates on those flagship apps which will come into their focus because those apps are quite often discussed on social media.” Meanwhile, Chinese companies like ByteDance continue to operate apps in India by keeping a low profile, and limiting advertising and press, he added.
“Resso is now one of the most widely used apps [in India], but you would not know it … which is why I think they have probably been able to circumvent [bans],” he said, noting how rare it is to see the music streaming app’s advertising in public.“You might see their ad and then could easily go back and trace their ownership structures.” Resso is listed on the Google Play store under the developer name Moon Video Inc., which is registered in the British Virgin Islands. The app operates discreetly in India, and has chosen not to launch some of its artist marketing and support programs, such as the musician incubator SoundOn, in the country.
According to Patil, Tiki’s “Make in India” messaging points to a different approach to marketing: using nationalistic rhetoric to help the app navigate challenging geopolitical tensions. “This is a clear attempt by companies directly owned by the Chinese tech ecosystem, or indirectly to align with the government rhetoric and government initiatives, to ensure that people identify it with things like Make in India … so [they] can continue to do business,” he said.
Many observers pointed to the Beijing-headquartered Kuaishou Technology, which owns China’s second most popular short-form video app, as setting a precedent for companies to push a lesser-known app in their portfolio after a ban. Kwai, the global version of Kuaishou’s namesake app, found success in India before it was banned in June 2020. After the ban, Kuaishou quickly concentrated its resources on an app called Snack Video, a similar service under its umbrella that had just launched in India, and, unlike Kwai, had branding that did not call back to its parent company.
“It’s clearly an attempt to ensure that they’re diversifying so that tomorrow, if one app escapes the ban, they can concentrate on that particular service to ensure that they continue to remain in the market,” Patil said. By late 2020, Snack Video was clocking 35 million downloads per month in India but was eventually banned.
But not all Chinese tech companies are quite so discreet. Xiaomi, one of the most popular smartphone brands in India, continues to operate over a dozen apps under the Xiaomi developer registration name. These include the smart home app Mi Home and file-sharing social media service ShareMe.
While Patil says Xiaomi apps are not immune to state crackdowns, he credits the relatively transparent ownership of these apps to the interdependence of the Chinese and Indian smartphone markets. “The fact is, today, despite all the concerns about the Chinese investment and the Chinese tech firms and the Chinese position in the market, [Indians] are still buying Chinese phones,” he said. Many Xiaomi apps, including the short-form video app Zili, come pre-downloaded onto the company’s devices.
“One way to look at it could be that since the ‘big fish’ have now been caught by the government, the other apps can continue operating as is,” Sameeksha Chowla, a senior associate at Touchstone Partners, a legal firm that advises multinational companies on their India operations, told Rest of World. Chowla, who has previously worked with Tencent, said, “But, practically speaking, given that the geopolitical situation amongst the two nations has not entirely normalized even after over two years, the possibility of a ban in the future cannot be overruled.”
For Chinese players who want to safely operate in India, Chowla suggests exploring the option of finding local partners. “Given the threat of a ban still overhangs, we believe any startup would find it difficult to justify significant expenditure being incurred for establishing a presence in the Indian market,” she said, suggesting alternatives to normal ownership structures. “What is a more plausible option instead is to partner with either local players by way of minority type investments.”
Given the risks involved, Pai of Siana Capital Management believes Chinese companies face challenges in India that their domestic competitors don’t. “I wouldn’t want to be a Chinese provider trying to operate under wraps in India right now,” he said. “That’s a tough place to be.”