During the spring semester of 2016 I studied abroad in Shanghai, China. It was a wild experience. The extent I underestimated the difference between the world I knew and the world I was going into is laughable. I thought I’d be able to get around just fine not knowing any Mandarin. I thought the pollution wouldn’t actually be as bad is it’s made out to be. I also thought that the integration of technology into daily life was far less pervasive and sophisticated relative to the Western world. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. The former two assumptions, I quickly realized, were just flat out ignorant – but the latter really took me by surprise.
Just about all services provided by major U.S. tech companies are blocked in China by what’s become known as the ‘Great China Firewall’ – meaning no Facebook, no Instagram, no Snapchat, no Twitter, no Google. Because the majority Westerners view these companies as the primary drivers of technological progression, many (myself included) jump to the conclusion that the tech landscape in China lags behind the rest of the world, and that the platforms available there are just ‘knock-offs’ of those offered by the major players in the West. And, because of the government’s tight control over the Internet, it’s easy to take a step further and assume that the impact of technology on daily life had not been realized to the extent that it has elsewhere in the world. In reality, these assumptions could not be further from the truth. My 4 months in Shanghai gave me an interesting, firsthand perspective on the disruption of industries and empowerment of people being driven by new technologies in China.
Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980’s created an investment climate that drove the creation of countless new jobs, businesses, industries, and even cites. Shanghai, a city that today is home to over million 24 people, popped out of the ground in twenty years.
Since China opened their doors to the rest of the world in the 1980’s, the socio-economic state of the country has undergone rapid, non-stop change. And while technological adoption has played an increasingly important role in China’s development throughout the past decade, proliferation of smartphones in recent years is altering the social and economic fabric of the country in new and extreme ways.
China has the largest population in the world of approximately 1.4 billion people – and in November of 2016, Statista estimated China had 1.319.99 million mobile subscriptions. Keep in mind that the United Sates has a population of approximately 320 million people. Crazy, huh? These mind-bending statistics illustrate the scale of connectivity that has in swept across China. Unlike the in the U.S. where getting cellphone is a long, expensive, and contract-oriented process, finding an affordable phone and network in China has been made easy and accessible to everyone – irrespective of city tier and/or socio-economic status. Everyone from rural farmers to factory workers to bankers now has a cell phone – and more and more commonly, a smartphone.
China’s mobile statistics are more enlightening when sliced to look at the number of people using their phones to access the Internet. Why? Because it takes connectivity one step further by enabling access to purpose-driven apps and ecosystems that create even greater value in the lives of consumers. iResearch reported that there were an estimated 619.81 Mobile Internet users in China in December of 2015, representing approximately 90% of the total Internet users in the country. This is a clear indication that smartphones are viewed as a more affordable, convenient, and useful than a computer- and it reflects the overwhelmingly pervasive role of mobile Internet in China moving forward.
The Eastern tech market has responded by creating a countless number of apps for just about every use case imaginable. Widespread access to applications has sparked a entirely new understanding of digital activity in Chinese society, and has had tremendous impact on daily life in the PRC. Visually, it’s almost impossible to miss. No matter where you turn, people always have their eyes glued on their phones. It’s bad in the U.S too, but China takes it to another new level. Advertising across all mediums – television, print, digital, etc. – is dominated by ads for smartphones and mobile apps. In a urban city like Shanghai, the streets are flooded with fleets of moped curriers operating via mobile platforms. Every checkout counter, from small street food vendors to large retailers, has a QR code available that most Chinese consumers will use to pay via their smartphone.
What’s not as ‘in your face’ is the cost to value ratio realized by Chinese citizens – especially outside of metropolitan areas. This new wave of connectivity has empowered the average citizen with a substantial increase in efficiency, productivity, and overall quality of life. WeChat, for example, is the most ubiquitous app in China that has connected the country on an entirely new level – it has grown from 2.8 million monthly active users in 2011 to 846 million monthly active users in 2016. WeChat users are able to accomplish more than imaginable through the platform. For certain businesses and industries, it has even replaced e-mail as the primary means of communication. Apps such as Taobao or JD enable Chinese consumers to buy anything they want at unbeatable prices – from groceries to clothes – read comprehensive reviews, communicate real-time with vendors, and have items delivered within hours. Digital banking, investing, and lending apps are disrupting China’s bulky and inefficient banking model and providing the average citizen with more financial flexibility than ever before. It’s important to consider that life isn’t easy in the PRC – especially for the average guy walking down the street. The cost, accessibility, and capabilities of smartphones have empowered the masses across China with access to connections, services, and opportunities that offer significant improvements to daily life – no question about it.
It’s interesting and exciting that China is still in the beginning of all of this. The disruption I’ve discussed occurred within the span of the past 5 or so years, so it will be interesting to see what happens in years ahead.