Most people who’ve experienced ChatGPT firsthand in China have accessed it through VPNs or paid workarounds—for example, clever entrepreneurs have essentially rented out OpenAI accounts or asked ChatGPT questions on buyers’ behalf, at the price of a few bucks per 20 questions. But even more people are seeing the results through screenshots and short social videos showing ChatGPT’s answers, both of which have swept Chinese social media this week.
Beyond the allure of the new and hard to access, it’s likely been so popular because ChatGPT’s ability to answer questions in Chinese has exceeded the expectations of many people (including me!). GPT-3—the previous model of this tech from OpenAI, which was released in 2020 and was also unavailable in China—was not very good at working with Chinese content. And while a few Chinese companies developed localized chatbot alternatives to GPT-3, they have often been derided by users as predictable, repetitive, and frustratingly off base.
Compared with them, ChatGPT is surprisingly good at forming natural, albeit a bit formal, answers that seem to understand traditional and pop-cultural references in China. It can mimic the writing style of Hu Xijin, former editor in chief of China’s main propaganda mouthpiece, the Global Times; it knows meme songs in Chinese and can create similar lyrics from scratch; and it can write in the emoji-filled style of influencer posts from the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu.
As in English, the accuracy of ChatGPT’s answers in Chinese often falls apart upon closer examination, and it makes factual mistakes. But the fact that a chatbot developed by an American company displays this much understanding of contemporary China has still impressed the public. I for one was in awe reading many of the ChatGPT answers: Wow, it definitely does a better Hu Xijin impersonation than I do!
So it’s not a surprise that Chinese tech companies now want a slice of the action. Baidu, the search and AI company that’s arguably best positioned to introduce a ChatGPT alternative, will finish testing its “Ernie Bot” in March and include it in most of its software and hardware products; Alibaba’s research division DAMO Academy is testing a similar tool internally; and 360, a cybersecurity and search company, said it will release a demo “ASAP.” Other tech companies like NetEase, iFlytek, and JD.com also want to use their own AI chatbots in specific scenarios, like education, e-commerce, and fintech.
The current action is driven by a mix of excitement and FOMO. On the one hand, very few tech products have managed to grab as much public attention as ChatGPT—which has given Chinese companies a rare confidence boost that the public can still be super excited and hopeful about a new technology. On the other hand, there’s clearly pressure on these companies not to miss out on this massive trend, or at least to look as if they haven’t.
That’s also probably why we’re seeing a bit of … let’s say … irrational corporate action as well. The Chinese stock market basically went into a frenzy looking for any Chinese company whose business shows even a hint of relation to AI or chatbots; for instance, Secoo, a failing luxury e-commerce company with little background in AI, announced on February 6 that it would explore using ChatGPT-like tech in its service; its stock price increased 124.4% that day. Meanwhile, Wang Huiwen, a cofounder of China’s delivery giant Meituan, posted on social media that he’s investing $50 million to start a ChatGPT-like company; in the time since, he has already secured $230 million more in VC funding, despite the fact that he’s admitted he doesn’t understand AI technology and is still learning.