Having sparked a global obsession with generative art, ten-month-old Midjourney looks set to enter the Middle Kingdom, the world’s largest internet marketplace.
In an article posted on Tencent-owned social platform WeChat late Monday, a company 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 an overwhelming reception in China. Applications would only be open for a few hours each Monday and Friday, the original post said, and users quickly filled the first quota on launch day. TechCrunch was unable 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. TechCrunch has been unable to verify the company’s identity and has reached out to Midjourney for comment.
Launching an internet application in China is no small feat given the strict regulations in the country. As such, it’s not uncommon for foreign startups to partner with local partners who help run their services on their behalf.
There are plenty of applications claiming to be the Chinese version of Midjourney, but this one seems to be the most serious. The copycats are easy to spot because they don’t care about community building and ask users to pay directly. “Midjourney China” said in the post that it launches a new iteration every 1-2 days and has a 24×7 support team to answer user questions.
Frankly, “Midjourney China” has a well-thought-out strategy. It chose to run on a QQ channel, the closest country to a Discord server. QQ, a PC-era legacy messenger built by Tencent, is at the heart of facilitating community building amid China’s generative AI craze. An emerging open-source neural network project called RWKVfor example, has gathered several thousand developers and users on QQ.
Tencent and “Midjourney China” have not entered into an official partnership for using QQ, according to a person with knowledge. Rather, the latter joined as an external client and started its own user acquisition.
Fandom half way through the journey
Tech-savvy Chinese netizens are no stranger to Midjourney, but so far they have accessed 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 bypass the Great Firewall that bans the social network. Then, to pay for Midjourney subscriptions, users without a credit card had to find agents to help sign up and top up funds. Credit cards are not common in China as the country has largely switched from cash to mobile payments.
The absence of ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion and the like in China has led to numerous local alternatives. It would be interesting to see if the Francisco-based company succeeds in gaining users from Baidu’s art generator ERNIE-ViLG and starting up Tiamatif “Midjourney China” turns out to be legit.
“Midjourney China” doesn’t look all 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 the debut article. After 25 free images, they must start paying through a pricing scheme similar to the Discord-based version.
A complicated market
‘Midjourney China’ emerges at a time when a number of Western internet giants are retreating. Just a week ago, LinkedIn announced it was shutting down InCareer, an app that was built to comply with regulations in China but probably didn’t have enough demand. Midjourney would face the same challenge of meeting the country’s compliance requirements while competing against more established domestic players.
Any foreign player coveting the Chinese market should brace themselves for ever-changing regulations. For starters, China requires real name verification for Generative AI users, just like virtually all other internet services operating within its jurisdiction. “Midjourney China” would have easily met the criterion by running on QQ, where all user accounts are tied to one’s real identity by default.
There are more complicated requirements. China has recently introduced a set of rules specific to the use of synthetic media. Service providers are responsible for labeling fake photos that could, for example, mislead the public. They are asked to keep a record of illegal use of AI and to report incidents to the authorities. There is no doubt that Midjourney in all its guises will have to censor keywords that are considered politically sensitive in China – which the company already does to a certain extent.
The question then becomes how “Midjourney China” and QQ share the burden and cost of monitoring user behavior if and when the application reaches critical mass in the country.
This is an evolving story – stay tuned for updates.