Knock-Off Apps. Billions of Users. The Curious Case of Smartphones in China

If you’re looking to break into the Chinese market, you need to be fluent in the language of smartphones. While we in the west might think that our smartphone dependence is severe, in many ways the Chinese are taking this addiction even further. All this means one thing – if you’re looking to find an audience in China, to get in front of the country’s eyes, the best way to do it is through their mobile devices.

Let’s take a look at the facts and figures of China’s phone use, and the unique part that devices play in the lives of its people.

From adoption to addiction

In 2008 around 300 million of China’s 1.3 billion strong population used the internet, with a touch over 100 million doing so on their phones. At this point, despite less than 8% of their population using mobile internet, they already boasted more users than any other country.

Fast forward less than 10 years, to the end of 2017, and those already large numbers had skyrocketed. 802 million Chinese now regularly used the internet, and no less than 788 million, a staggering 98% of the total, do so on mobile devices.

Mobile phone use, and in particular smartphone use, continues to rise exponentially in China. This trend can be put down to a few main drivers:

  1. The government is firmly focused on developing the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, as it prepares to transition from a traditional economy built on manufacturing and export to a modern economy built on innovation.
  2. There is a burgeoning middle class, expected to represent around 70% of the population by 2030, is enjoying more disposable income than ever before and has developed a taste for the latest tech.
  3. There’s been a culture shift towards smart, innovative and time-saving tech that has pervaded the daily lives of the Chinese to a degree that is probably hard to imagine for anyone outside the country.

And it is this last factor that has really driven the upswing of smartphone usage in the last decade. In China your phone is less a communication device as it is an extra limb. Innovations that have experienced a middling reception or gathered users at a snail’s pace elsewhere have taken an instant stranglehold in China, further cementing the country’s smartphone dependence.

Which innovations, exactly? Here are just three examples of how the Chinese have taken to smartphone tech in ways that other nations haven’t.

Phones as payment devices

wechat payment

Sure, every now and again you’ll see someone in Australia whip out their phone and use Apple or Google Pay to buy a coffee. But having been released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, these third party smartphone payment options haven’t exactly proven to be game-changers.

In China, however, the adoption of this tech has been absolute. The Chinese equivalents – Alipay and WeChat Pay (the payment arms of Alibaba and, you guessed it, WeChat) – have all but taken over from the banks in terms of day-to-day payments. If a restaurant server in a major city was handed a credit card, it’s not unreasonable to think that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Everyone in China’s metro hubs use these third party apps, simply scanning a their phone whenever they buy a bus ticket, finish their meal at a restaurant, or even receive a bill in the mail through the use of a QR code.

Phones as information gateways

And this brings us neatly to our next point of difference – QR codes. While they’ve struggled to take off in other countries, inevitably sitting unloved in the corner of magazine spreads and bus shelter ads, these little pixelated squares are massive in China.

It turns out that when they’re properly adopted and utilised, QR codes have a million and one uses; not just as the ‘find out more’ gateways in marketing material that we know (although these are actually used in China), but also as a way to pay bills and transfer cash, and even as easily tradable digital business cards.

Phones as communication devices

While perhaps not wildly different to the ways of the west, the pervasion of smartphone apps, and in particular social networks, is still more extreme in China than elsewhere. And we’re not talking Facebook, Google and WhatsApp here; with the Great Firewall of China blocking those apparently untrustworthy western apps, every Silicon Valley tech giant has a Chinese equivalent:

  • QQ is Facebook
  • WeChat is WhatsApp
  • Weibo is Twitter
  • Baidu is Google
  • Didi is Uber
  • TanTan is Tinder

WeChat in particular sells itself as a ‘super app’ that can do most anything that you’d want to with a phone – broadcast on social media, send private messages and make payments, to name but a few uses. A person’s life is not just funnelled through their smartphone in China, but through a far more select group of apps than in the western world.

The size of China means that each of these apps are amongst the biggest in the world for pure user numbers, with WeChat clocking in at one billion monthly users, and QQ not far behind.

Understanding the opportunity

Smartphone use in China is an entirely different beast to smartphone use in Australia, or indeed anywhere else in the world. In some ways it’s light years ahead, in others it’s rather restricted and devoid of choice.

Understanding the ways of the world’s next economic superpower will be key to the success of anyone who is looking to capitalise on its rise. You’ll need to do things the Chinese way in order to make it, and if current trends continue, being smartphone savvy will be one of the more crucial elements to a successful China strategy.