Today, modernity is synonymous with connectivity. It’s interesting to watch the growing popularity of mobile technology and how it’s being applied in such a wide range of fields. From phones to tablets and laptops, it’s hard to find moments of our lives that aren’t connected. As real as it is, this reliance on technology sometimes stirs up controversy, such as kids checking Facebook on their phones or losing track of time playing games. This trend is even more pronounced in China.
During our mission to this technologically and economically burgeoning country, we couldn’t help but notice that mobile technology is omnipresent in everyday life. China’s Great Firewall blocks access to several websites and most social media from around the world. But there’s one tool that gets past the Chinese barrier: WeChat, a tool developed by Tencent.
WeChat is like the Swiss army knife of mobile apps. During our stay in China, we used it a lot and were continuously surprised by what it does. Not only does it offer chat and video calls between people who subscribe to other well-known apps (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Skype), you can also locate your contacts on an interactive map by sharing your location with them. This feature came in really handy whenever our group split up and then wanted to reconvene.
Another feature we loved was the message translation. WeChat will translate incoming messages to your phone’s language. When you’re in a foreign country and constantly asking for directions, the language barrier can be a serious obstacle. But with WeChat, you just have to let the person you’re talking to scan your QR code and you’ll be instantly connected. We translated messages in Chinese to French/English and vice-versa. One day in Shanghai, our interpreter took the day off and our driver was struggling to find the right words in English. The translation feature came to the rescue, allowing us to clarify the departure and return times. Are you a cycling enthusiast? No problem! You can even connect your Ofo account (a docking station-free bike rental service that’s comparable to Montreal’s BIXI) and rent one of the bikes available to the public. All you have to do is scan the QR code. In addition to advanced communications features, WeChat also connects to your Chinese bank account so that you can pay for everything from subway tickets to in-store purchases—and even your rent and electricity bill. It will even order you a taxi! We couldn’t get over the degree to which this app has worked its way into everyday life in China. Of course, with more than 889 million users, it’s tough to find people who don’t use it.
So the question is, how come there isn’t more competition? The answer is actually quite complicated. While there’s fierce competition between giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook in North America, in China the contenders are Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. But the funny thing is that these companies hardly overlap. Alibaba is the king of e-commerce, Baidu handles Google-type services (search engine and maps), and Tencent is the communications kingpin. Word is that the Chinese government facilitated this monopoly to make nationwide electronic monitoring easier.