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Digital Life Behind the Great Firewall

Mobile phone using RFID technology

Friends visiting me in Shanghai have often asked me: How do you live without [insert one of many apps services banned in China]? What do you do!?

The 1.3 billion+ deprived of Netflix and Google make do with many homegrown alternatives. Thanks to China's strict internet censorship and protectionist policies, many of the services we would consider “universal” are off-limits in China. This prevented the market from being flooded with global competitors and created a closed ecosystem that allowed domestic tech companies to thrive.

As you can see from the chart below listing the most popular mobile apps by country, the universally popular apps all have homegrown alternatives in China offered by the three top domestic players: Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba. The top 5 apps/websites in China are: WeChat (social media), QQ (social media, inspired by ICQ), Taobao (online marketplace similar to eBay), Baidu (search engine), TMall (e-commerce, similar to Amazon).

Infographic released by Etude IBM Retail

Outside of China, each of these platforms have its unique expectations. Instagram is where you post filtered photos of your food. Snapchat is where you send silly videos to your friends. Facebook is for gloating and groaning. LinkedIn is for you to demonstrate your grasp of corporate jargon.

WeChat's popularity in China grew without much outside interference. It is the alternative universe version all of the above mentioned social media tools and more. That makes it messy. WeChat's omnipresence is so that it even has its own annual conference, dedicated to just one of its offerings, digital marketing. But that's subject for a separate post.

Partly due to culture, and partly due to WeChat’s messaging app roots, the social network developed within WeChat is unusually intimate and opaque. People rarely shy away from exchanging WeChat contacts. The line between your professional and personal lives is blurred, and a new friend is just a quick QR code scan away, be it your barber or your corner fruit shop owner. In fact, almost anything you need to do in WeChat can be done by scanning a QR code: payment, bike share, shopping, etc.

Nope, as a visitor without a local bank account, you most likely will not be able to enjoy these features. But at least you can make some friends. Once you have friends, you'll be introduced to WeChat groups. Oh my God, so many group chats.

I have a group chat for my yoga class, where the class calendar is posted several times a month and sign-ups are done by texting into the group "hey, I'm in for tonight." I have a group chat for cat photos and videos. I have a group chat for my dance classes. I have yet another group chat for all the lectures happening around Shanghai and many, many more for any and all social gatherings. And I have several groups for various work projects and teams where we share work documents and have conference calls.

It's not pretty, but we make it work.

I wouldn't say WeChat is the best app in the world, just that it's the most widely used in China, and tends to function well within the Great Firewall. People praise WeChat for its versatility, but in truth most of these functions, event planning and file sharing specifically, have better alternatives outside of China.

Same goes for QR codes. Scanning a QR code, or more often, having a confusing minute-long exchange with a waiter or a new connection where you figure out who is scanning who with what, isn't as smooth as Apple Pay and other RFID options. But QR code is low tech. Anyone can link a (Chinese) bank account to WeChat Wallet or Alipay, print out a QR code, stick it on the wall and voila, you've got mobile payment. No POS machine or any type of infrastructure necessary. That's worked well in China.

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

That's really the first step in crossing borders: Instead of focusing on what you believe works best, what you believe is "the universal way," ask "what works best for you?"

Then you can work on meeting in the middle.

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