Although I visit China about once a year, but until this current trip, they’ve all been short one-week trips. During those trips, I was undeniably a visitor and an outsider, surviving on a roaming T-Mobile SIM card and the Google stack (well, plus WeChat). Rather than merely surviving, I decided to fully immerse myself into the day-to-day life and business to get a true understanding of what it’s like to live in the rapidly-changing, tech-enabled metropolis of Beijing.
Here are what stood out to me in the first week.
Literally, you can thrive here with only your phone — the holy grail of mobile is already a reality in China. The biggest barrier for merging the online and offline world had been payments; in the US you still need to carry a card and at least some cash. That’s been solved elegantly by WeChat Pay and AliPay (among others).
The level of market adoption is astounding. Let me illustrate with a couple of personal stories.
1) The first time I walked into my neighborhood coffee shop, I ordered and clumsily pulled out my wallet and count cash to pay. It took a while, and I felt that everyone was looking at me, impatiently. I turned around and literally everyone else in line already had their WeChat Pay opened and the QR code ready to go. Even the cashier seemed surprised that I wasn’t going to pay by phone. Instantly felt out of place.
2) I helped my mom to buy groceries at the local stand behind the apartment. The market is like a cross-breed of a flea market and a Gilroy roadside cherry stand, which is to say it’s nothing fancy. We picked out a couple of cucumbers for 2 CNY ($0.3 USD). When I casually asked the guy if he took WeChat Pay, he exclaimed “Of course!” and pointed me to a QR code of his account, already printed and laminated, which he uses to accept payment.
All this happened within the last 2 years. And based on what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if the market penetration is 80%+ in terms of vendor adoption. Due to how China’s credit system evolved and the regulation involved, the country leaped over credit cards and went directly to digital payments with great success. Both peer-to-peer and peer-to-vendor are now digital.
The advent and ubiquity of mobile payments enabled an entire ecosystem of mobile-driven services, which truly makes it possible to live in the city with only a smartphone.
The most obvious example is the bike sharing network, led by Mobile and ofo. Trust me, you won’t miss it when you’re in China. Bikes in all different colors, each representing a different company, litter the sidewalks and streets. It’s like gBikes on the Google campus, but now think about the same level of density, for the entire NYC. To use it? Just download an app, which of course you access not through an app store but by scanning a QR code with your WeChat app.
To get an appointment at a hospital? Sure, you can go in-person and fight (ahem, wait in line) with everyone to get a spot. Or, you can follow the hospital on WeChat, upload a picture of your government-issued ID, and make an appointment right on your phone.
At some cafes (e.g. InWe Tea), you don’t even need to go to the counter to order. Simply sit down at your favorite table, scan the unique QR code for that table, and start ordering. The cafe knows which table you’re at, and a waiter will bring you your drink in no time. Sure, it may be a bit gimmicky, but it goes to show the creativity that is unlocked when you unbundle the exchange of payments.
At the center of everything is WeChat. It’s hard to overstate its importance, because it’s the fabric that connects your personal, family, and professional networks. Everyone has a single account, which is real-name verified. You’d have all your contacts on there, personal and professional, in a single conversation feed. As a consumer, there is literally no need (and no usage) of emails; even in a business setting email is increasingly rare.
It’s also the default QR code scanner. And the default mobile wallet. And the default single-sign-on (SSO) for third party apps. Oh yeah, and it’s also how you interact with vendors and businesses.
There’s the concept of “public accounts” which you can follow and interact with vendors. For example, if I frequent a cafe, I can follow its public account. Once I do that, I can sign up to become a member, receive coupons, and contact customer service, all within WeChat.
Because WeChat is so ubiquitous, everyone is literally checking it all the time. The excuses of “oh I didn’t check my email” and “I only check emails 2 times a day” simply won’t fly. You simply can’t “not check” WeChat.
So by opting out of WeChat, you are essentially opting out of the entire digital world of China. Neither Google nor Facebook plays as important as a role in a US consumer’s life. There isn’t even a remote competitor to WeChat in its role. It’s scary to imagine what this type of monopoly can lead to.
Beijing is mega city of almost 30 million people. There are simply things that are only possible with an extreme population density, and as such only in a handful of global cities. There are downsides, too, such as traffic and pollution. But there are some areas with overwhelming convenience.
Take delivery, for example. Shopping at large e-commerce sites default to next day delivery (and oftentimes free!), with some even providing same day delivery. It’s possible due to two factors. One, distribution centers right on the outskirts of the city with huge quantity and SKU variety. Two, delivery drivers on motorbikes that can weave in and out of traffic; something a giant UPS truck simply isn’t able to do.
Although China isn’t necessarily known as a country with good service, there’s one thing that it does well and that’s speed. Ordering food and delivery is so quick. From the time you place an order at a good sit-down restaurant to the time someone delivers it to you on a motorcycle takes just 45 minutes. The delivery guy is already at the restaurant a few minutes before the food is even ready. Try that with Uber Eats.
There are also mailing services, similar to UberRUSH, that can get small items from one side of town to another in less than an hour.
One regulation in recent years is that every mobile phone number must be tied to a government ID card. It’s impossible to get a local number without authenticating it at a physical store with an ID.
Different from the US where most web/app services are registered with an email address, almost all services in China are registered with a cell phone number or SSO through WeChat. You can’t even log onto most public WiFi networks without having a local phone number to receive the authentication text message.
By extension, this means that every app and service you use *can* be traced back to your real identity. Some apps, for example the bike sharing app, even requires an upload of your ID card. It’s so commonplace that people don’t think twice before providing it.
Whether a tech company or the government decides to do so is another matter, but there isn’t much anonymity on the Internet. A watchful eye indeed.
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