Chinese Digital Platform Companies’ Expansion in the Belt and Road Countries

Yujia He


The emergence of digital platforms is shifting the digital economy toward a “platform economy”, and Chinese platform-based businesses like Alibaba, Tencent, JD are increasingly expanding in the Global South. Alongside this, the Chinese government has been promoting digital economy collaboration with other emerging markets through high-level engagement under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its digital economy component the “Digital Silk Road” (DSR). Despite significant market interest and policy attention, grounded empirical analysis of Chinese digital platforms’ expansion within Belt and Road Initiative countries is scarce. This study employs a mixed-method approach, drawing on both quantitative data of Chinese platform companies’ overseas foreign direct investment and qualitative data obtained from fieldwork interviews in Southeast Asia and from secondary sources that focuses on a case study of Chinese platforms in Indonesia.

It finds that Chinese digital platforms largely conducted their overseas expansion based on commercial interests, and BRI as Beijing’s high-level policy framework has had a limited direct impact on the expansion of the privately-owned Chinese platforms and their local business operations within host countries. The vagueness of BRI/DSR has also allowed platform companies investing in Indonesia to choose how to engage with Chinese BRI/DSR rhetoric depending on the local context. Furthermore, local contextual factors, including Indonesian policy, policy implementation, and labor market, have shaped the platforms’ business expansion. Firms have been pushed to adapt to local policy priorities and socioeconomic context, seek local partners and invest in local capacity building. The findings suggest a more complicated state-firm relationship in Chinese digital platforms’ expansion than that which is often perceived, and the importance of host country contexts in shaping Chinese digital platforms’ local business strategies.

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