Midjourney’s Entry into China’s Internet Market Sparks Excitement and Regulatory Challenges

Midjourney, the generative art sensation that has captivated global audiences, appears to be making its way into China, the world’s largest internet market. A recent article posted on the Tencent-owned social platform WeChat by a corporate account named “Midjourney China” announced that the company has started accepting applications for beta test users. However, the post was mysteriously deleted shortly after its publication.

The sudden disappearance of the article, which had received an overwhelmingly positive response in China, raises questions about the reasons behind it. The original post stated that applications would only be open for a few hours every Monday and Friday, and the first quota for users was quickly filled on the launch day. Unfortunately, TechCrunch has not had the opportunity to test the product yet.

The owner of the WeChat account, Pengyuhui, is a Nanjing-based company founded in October, but little public information is available about the firm. TechCrunch has been unable to verify the company’s identity and has reached out to Midjourney for comment.

Launching an internet application in China can be a challenging task due to the country’s strict regulatory environment. It is not uncommon for foreign startups to collaborate with local partners to operate their services on their behalf.

Although there have been several applications claiming to be the Chinese version of Midjourney, the one introduced by “Midjourney China” appears to be the most credible. These copycat versions are easily identifiable as they lack community building efforts and directly request payment from users. In contrast, “Midjourney China” emphasizes the introduction of new iterations every day or two and boasts a 24/7 support team to assist users.

The strategy employed by “Midjourney China” seems well-thought-out. By choosing to operate on the QQ channel, which is China’s equivalent of Discord, the company taps into a platform that facilitates community building in China’s generative AI scene. QQ, a legacy messenger developed by Tencent during the PC era, has become a prominent platform for developers and users to engage with open source neural network projects like RWKV.

According to an insider, Tencent and “Midjourney China” have not yet formed an official partnership regarding the use of QQ. Instead, “Midjourney China” has joined as a third-party client and initiated its independent user acquisition efforts.

Tech-savvy Chinese netizens are already familiar with Midjourney, although they have been accessing the text-to-image generator through unofficial means and circumvention methods. To access the Midjourney bot on Discord, users have had to rely on virtual private networks to bypass the Great Firewall, which restricts access to the social network. Additionally, users without credit cards have needed to seek out agents to assist with signup and fund top-ups, as credit cards are not commonly used in China due to the prevalence of mobile payments.

The absence of ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion, and similar alternatives in China has led to the emergence of local alternatives. It will be interesting to see if Midjourney, a San Francisco-based company, can attract users from competitors such as Baidu’s art generator ERNIE-ViLG and the startup Tiamat if “Midjourney China” proves to be legitimate.

At a time when several Western internet giants are retreating from the Chinese market, “Midjourney China” is making its appearance. Just a week ago, LinkedIn announced the closure of InCareer, an app developed to comply with Chinese regulations but lacked sufficient demand. Midjourney faces similar challenges as it aims to fulfill the country’s compliance requirements while competing with more established domestic players.

Any foreign company eyeing the Chinese market must navigate its ever-evolving regulations. For instance, China requires real-name verification for users of generative AI, as is the case for nearly all other internet services operating within the country’s jurisdiction. “Midjourney China” may have conveniently met this criterion by operating on QQ, where user accounts are linked to real identities by default.

Furthermore, China recently introduced specific rules for synthetic media usage. Service providers are responsible for labeling fake images that could mislead the public and are required to keep records of illegal AI use, reporting incidents to the authorities. Undoubtedly, any version of Midjourney will need to censor politically sensitive keywords in China, as the company already does to some extent.

The question then arises as to how “Midjourney China” and QQ will divide the burden and costs of monitoring user behavior if the application gains critical mass in the country.