By now the story is an old one. China’s Internet is fettered. Content is censored. Google, Facebook, and YouTube are blocked, and the Great Firewall has largely severed the population from the rest of the online world. Unlike their counterparts in the West and elsewhere in Asia, the Chinese are forced to tolerate a cyber universe that is secondary and hopelessly backward. Even before setting foot in the Middle Kingdom, first-time visitors are long cognizant of the online restrictions they face; the news media has been relentless in covering the topic.
But another narrative is largely being overlooked: the Chinese web, despite all its flaws, is charging forward in an innovative and breathtaking manner and leaving its Western counterpart in the dust. The action is centered around mobile and e-commerce and lead by Internet barons Alibaba and Tencent, in particular the latter’s social messaging app WeChat.
In its early years, WeChat was mainly used to send audio and text messages as well as post pictures — or Moments — to share with friends, something of a WhatsApp-Facebook medley.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Today, WeChat has embedded itself into the lives of hundreds of millions of people here in China in ways unparalleled in Western social media and tech. WeChat is used to pay electricity, water, and phone bills; settle lunch by scanning a QR code; book flights and buy train tickets; and send money transfers between friends. All this and more can be accomplished without leaving the app. The number of monthly active WeChat users has grown to a staggering 800 million and counting.
There’s a very good reason why WeChat — and Alibaba’s Alipay — allow users to accomplish so much in one single app.
One of the first words students of Mandarin learn — alongside “hello” — is fangbian, or convenient. Something is either hen fangbian, very convenient, or bu fangbian, inconvenient. Seeking convenience and efficiency in Northeast Asia are cultural obsessions, and one-stop shopping is the norm. No one fancies running around doing errands; that attitude extends to China’s mobile universe.
Another app, Jingdong Daojia, offers dry cleaning services, grocery shopping and delivery, and even outcall massage. Payment is settled through the app and the services executed without you leaving home.
Cash is becoming obsolete among young and old alike, at least in the cities. Urbanites use their mobile phones to pay for everything from a cup of coffee to a piece of clothing. The incentive for using your phone as a mode of payment is usually a discount of a few cents to 15 percent off the retail price. Plenty of restaurants knock a few dollars off the bill if you pay via mobile instead of plastic or cash.
One could easily argue the reason Chinese homegrown tech and social media dominate the local market is because their Western counterparts have been shut out. But such a claim is unfounded.
WhatsApp is freely available in China, but its functions are paltry in number compared to the offerings of WeChat. Those who do have a WhatsApp account use it simply to keep in touch with friends outside of China (that is, those friends who haven’t been nudged into signing up for WeChat first). YouTube is blocked, but it would unlikely survive in the sea of streaming sites long available here. Western ridesharing giant Uber recently sold its China operations to local rival Didi Chuxing, having failed to win customers because Uber failed to offer a distinct service.
There can be no doubt that China is the world leader in mobile payment. Western companies are now looking to the Chinese web and e-commerce for inspiration. Inspired by Chinese tech, Facebook now offers U.S.-based users the ability to send and receive money — quite the reversal from the stereotype of the Chinese copycat.
To be sure, old habits do die hard, especially in the Middle Kingdom. In July, phone and gadget maker Xiaomi unveiled a laptop that looks like Apple’s Macbook Air. Chinese tech companies continuously deny they copy the hardware coming out of Silicon Valley and elsewhere, though no one’s fooled.
Still, there can be no denying, as The Economist recently wrote, that “the flow of ideas between China and the West is now two-way.”
China is blazing a trail when it comes e-commerce and fintech. Unfortunately, the news media have been focused for too long on how people here must endure life without Google and Twitter, as if the Chinese public actually felt deprived.
China is in the midst of shifting its economy into one led by services and consumption, and tech companies are at the forefront of this change. Future innovation in tech, mobile, and payment will likely emanate from China, and the consequences could impact the rest of the world for years and decades to come.
Elvis Anber is a freelance writer based in Beijing.