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China's Tech Giants Quietly Grow off Beijing's Internet Controls

Sina, which came out 10 years ago as one of China's top Internet content providers, has seen its Nasdaq share price rise 23% over the past five years. Tencent has seen share prices go up an unfettered 87% since 2007. American Depositary Receipts of Renren, however, have sunk 77% over about the last year.

"Whether such Chinese services are making money is another story, but wherever they are in their development, it's safe to say that they have done much better or gotten much further than they might had they had to face not just local, but global competition," says Mark Natkin, managing director with the Beijing-based market research firm Marbridge Consulting.

China's bans on Dropbox and Google Drive have given growth space to the local Alibaba AliCloud service, for example. Its parent company, Alibaba Group, is expected to do an initial public offering this year after buying a share of a major rival, giant Silicon Valley giant search engine and Internet service provider Yahoo! (YHOO).

With Google searches running slow and the company inert toward China after pulling plugs there in 2010 over censorship and hacking worries, Chinese-owned Baidu (BIDU - Get Report) and local peer Sogou have found plenty of users looking up information online. Baidu share prices are up 86% since 2007.

China's government also didn't build by itself the network that allows its cops to monitor who's surfing what, closing down proxies within days of their debuts and sending out self-explanatory page-cannot-be-displayed messages to users who land on banned sites. Any foreign company that helps China block and filter content would have a fat customer to depend on, but local rivals have caught up.

Hard to say where the foreign aid comes from. Cisco Systems (CSCO) was sued in The United States last year over allegations of designing a firewall to monitor the Internet, but the Silicon Valley networking hardware maker has said it does not customize products to censor or repress people. China-based Huawei Technology makes the same kind of equipment anyhow.

Says Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Beijing-based Internet research firm (and popular blog) danwei.com: "It's unlikely any American company has made any money since the early days of the Chinese Internet, in the 1990s, before Chinese companies like Huawei had the capacity to make routers and other networking equipment."

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