After igniting a global obsession over generative art, ten-month-old Midjourney appears to be entering the Middle Kingdom, the world's largest internet market.
In an article posted on the Tencent-owned social platform WeChat late on Monday, a corporate account named "Midjourney China" said it has started accepting applications for beta test users. But the account soon deleted its first and only article on Tuesday.
It's unclear why the post disappeared after receiving an overwhelming reception in China. Applications would only be open for a few hours every Monday and Friday, the original post said, and users quickly filled up the first quota on launch day. TechCrunch hasn't been able to test the product.
The owner of the WeChat account is a Nanjing-based company called Pengyuhui, which was founded in October and had very little public information available. TechCrunch hasn't been able to verify the identity of the firm and has reached out to Midjourney for comment.
Launching an internet application in China is no small feat given the country's strict regulatory environment. As such, it's not uncommon to see foreign startups teaming up with local partners who help operate their services on their behalf.
There have been plenty of applications that claim to be Midjourney's Chinese version, but this one seems the most serious. The copycats are easy to detect, as they don't bother about community building and straight out ask for users to pay. "Midjourney China" said in the post that it is introducing a new iteration every day or two and has a 24/7 support team to answer user questions.
In all fairness, "Midjourney China" has a well-thought-out strategy. It chose to run on a QQ channel, the country's closest thing to a Discord server. QQ, a PC-era legacy messenger built by Tencent, has taken center stage in facilitating community building amid China's generative AI craze. A rising open source neural network project called RWKV, for example, has gathered several thousand developers and users on QQ.
Tencent and "Midjourney China" haven't entered into an official partnership in using QQ, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Rather, the latter has joined as a third-party client and initiated its own user acquisition.
Tech-savvy Chinese netizens are no strangers to Midjourney, but so far they've been accessing the text-to-image generator through informal means and circumvention methods.
To access Discord, where the Midjourney bot runs, they need virtual private networks to get around the Great Firewall that bans the social network. Then to pay for Midjourney subscriptions, users without credit cards have needed to seek out agents who help with signup and fund top-up. Credit cards aren't common in China as the country has largely leapfrogged from cash to mobile payments.
The absence of ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion and the likes in China has given rise to a host of local alternatives. It'd be interesting to see if the San Francisco–based company manages to win users from Baidu's art generator ERNIE-ViLG and startup Tiamat, if "Midjourney China" turns out to be legitimate.
"Midjourney China" looks not that different from the original art generator at first glance. Users send prompts on the QQ channel to generate images, which they can then modify with further instructions, according to its debut article. After 25 free images, they need to start paying through a price scheme that's on par with the Discord-based version.
A complicated market
"Midjourney China" is popping up at a time when a number of Western internet giants are retreating. Just a week ago, LinkedIn announced it would be closing down InCareer, an app that was built to suit China's regulatory environment but arguably didn't have enough demand. Midjourney would face the same challenge of fulfilling the country's compliance requirements while competing head-on with more established domestic players.
Any foreign player who covets the China market needs to brace for its ever-evolving regulations. To start with, China requires real-name verification for users of generative AI, as with virtually all other internet services that operate within its jurisdiction. "Midjourney China" might have conveniently met the criterion by running on QQ where all user accounts are by default linked to one's real identity.
There are more complicated requirements. China recently introduced a set of rules specifically for synthetic media use. Service providers are responsible for labeling fake pictures that can mislead the public, for example. They are asked to keep records of illegal uses of AI and report incidents to the authorities. There's no doubt that Midjourney in any of its manifestations will need to censor keywords that are considered politically sensitive in China -- which the company already does to some extent.
The question then is how "Midjourney China" and QQ divide the burden and costs of monitoring user behavior if and when the application reaches a critical mass in the country.
This is a developing story -- stay tuned for updates.