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China’s best-selling commerce app Xiaohongshu expands overseas sources

  • Xiaohongshu is sometimes described as “the Instagram of China” and is popular with Gen Z.
  • It is following in the footsteps of TikTok and wants to build a global following, sources told Insider.
  • The company is recruiting for positions that involve the development of its product internationally.

Xiaohongshu, a popular influencer and shopping app described as “China’s Instagram,” is taking its first concrete steps toward expanding overseas and targeting international users, Insider has learned.

Its expansion would mark the growing ambitions of Chinese tech firms outside their home country, taking on US giants such as Meta and Amazon. TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, remains the headliner of Chinese applications that are going international.

Shanghai-based Xiaohongshu, which means “little red book” in Chinese, has hired a candidate to oversee the development of its international product, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Kim Kardashian on Xiaohongshu

Kim Kardashian on Xiaohongshu.

Xiaohongshu


The company has also been looking for a candidate in Singapore to lead international business operations, the person said, asking not to be identified for discussing confidential information. No timetable or clear plan was discussed, the person added.

Insider found several job postings for positions in China suggesting the company wants to develop an international product, including a role for an international product manager who preferably speaks Japanese. While the reach is global in nature, Southeast Asia and Japan appear to be priority markets, said another person who asked not to be identified to discuss sensitive topics.

Xiaohongshu may also consider developing the first non-Chinese version of its app.

The company did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Instagram on steroids

Xiaohongshu is “kind of like Instagram, Etsy and Amazon rolled into one,” said Sarah Yam, co-founder of Red Digital China, a digital marketing agency.

The app is currently only available in China, where its roughly 200 million monthly active users browse for product recommendations, lifestyle advice and how-to videos.

Compared to Instagram, “Xiaohongshu is more open,” said Zoe Lu, project manager at strategic research agency Daxue Consulting. It’s less about subscribing to particular creators — instead, an AI-powered algorithm shows you videos that the app thinks you might be interested in.

Beauty blogger Cheng Shi An offers makeup tutorials and beauty reviews to its 5.3 million subscribers, with its recommendations directly linked to the brands’ official Xiaohongshu stores.

Xiaohongshu Influencer

Xiaohongshu influencer Cheng Shi An, who has 5.3 million followers as of February 2022.

Xiaohongshu


In other video, lifestyle influencer Winnie Wen tells her 3.4 million followers how a woman should kiss her boyfriend. “Just a reminder, this video can get riskier towards the end,” she says, smiling at the camera.

The company, stylized as “RED” in English, was founded in 2013 by chief executive Charlwin Mao, a former Bain consultant and Stanford Graduate School of Business alumnus, and chairwoman Miranda Qu, who previously worked for the conglomerate of German media Bertelsmann.

The app is hugely popular with China’s Gen Z, with around three-quarters of its users born in the 1990s and half living in China’s wealthier cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. Most of its users are women, according to state media.

This young, affluent and urban clientele has attracted major foreign brands. Kim Kardashian joined the app in 2018 to sell its KKW fragrance lines. Luxury brands like Gucci use it to present their products. Olympic freestyle skier Eileen Gu held a direct on the app earlier in February.

Chinese firms explore overseas expansion as China cracks down

brand zuckerberg facebook meta

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has warned that Chinese tech companies could supplant their American rivals.

Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images


Xiaohongshu plans to register in the United States in 2021, Bloomberg reported, but instead decided to explore a list in Hong Kong after Beijing demanded that companies handling the data of more than a million users go through a cybersecurity review before going public overseas. The company has not yet been made public, and raised $500 million in private funding in November.

There are other telltale signs of his international ambitions. The company seems to have created a English version from its website in the summer of 2021. It has also launched accounts on instagram, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and LinkedIn – English-speaking platforms that are difficult to access in mainland China. And analysis by the 591Info blog suggests that Xiaohongshu has advertised to foreign audiences in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States.

Xiaohongshu’s expansion follows warnings from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg that Chinese apps could supplant their main US rivals.

“There was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that basically only offered their services in China,” Zuckerberg reportedly told employees in 2020. “TikTok, which is built by this Beijing ByteDance company, is really the first internet product mainstream built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world.”

Gretchen Su, a partner at law firm Withers KhattarWong in Singapore, suggested that Xiaohongshu would target non-Chinese users, thanks to increasingly strict national regulations.

“There are so many active regulatory interventions that there seems to be a constantly moving target,” she said. “By leaving China, tech companies may think they buy more time to work in a more stable regulatory environment.”

“But the new regulations (on personal data) are generally formulated to apply across borders… so they should seek to divert their customer base to non-Chinese consumers,” she added.

Still, Zuckerberg may not have much to worry about, as Xiaohongshu prioritizes Southeast Asian markets where US giants have a small presence.

“TikTok is successful because video sharing was still a blank slate overseas,” said Lu of Daxue Consulting. “But Xiaohongshu has a serious competitor: Instagram.”