When Wang Bowen fell in love with an “American Idol”–style reality show on a Chinese video site, he wanted to do everything to support his favorite contestant, a young woman with short hair and big round glasses. Paying subscribers of the site, owned by internet giant Tencent, could cast far more votes for contestants than non-paying users. So Mr. Wang happily signed up for a subscription.
Mr. Wang, a 26-year-old fintech startup cofounder in Shenzhen, is part of a growing trend in China. In a country long plagued by rampant piracy and counterfeits, millions of young consumers are starting to pay for online content services such as Tencent Video, Baidu-backed iQiyi and Alibaba’s Youku—each a local mix of Netflix and YouTube-like offerings. It’s a turnabout from the situation five years ago, when most Chinese streaming services had no choice but to offer their licensed content free.