As soon as you arrive in China, you’re told that everyone’s go-to messaging app is WeChat. China blocks most western social media, so they developed their own. So, when I migrated to Hong Kong two years ago from France and knew that I would travel to China several times per year, I installed WeChat. Frankly, at first, I didn’t understand the differences between WeChat, Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and other similar apps. When it comes to messaging, WeChat is just as good as its American competitors. For months, I wondered why Chinese were so excited about such a normal/basic/boring messaging app that was basically identical to the others. Since it might be the only such app authorized by the CCP and as Chinese couldn’t compare it to other apps, those underprivileged Chinese must treasure it. (Spoiler Alert: It’s embarrassing how wrong I was!)
In the end, if you’re a foreigner like me, you’ll install WeChat and hardly use it. Why? First, all your foreigner friends probably use WhatsApp. Second, only the messaging part of WeChat and WeChat Pay has an English version. Almost everything else is in Chinese. It’s as if only Facebook Messenger was in English and the rest of Facebook was in Chinese. So, if you don’t read Chinese, you’ll be left at the gates of the stadium, listening to everyone having lots of fun without understanding what the hell is happening inside.
WeChat Pay enables you to transfer money instantly to anyone with a WeChat account without paying a commission. You can also pay by scanning the QR code that cashiers will show you at the grocery store or restaurants. Nothing new here, either. This seems to look like Apple, Google, or Samsung Pay. Still not enough to stimulate the techno-freak that I am. So, at first, like any big-headed westerner, I was convinced that our social media are the best in the world. I felt sad for those poor Chinese who didn’t have the chance to use Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail, or YouTube. I looked at them with compassion. They were missing out on so many amazing things! Oh boy, I was wrong! WeChat is the most powerful app in the known universe, it put all other social media you know in recovery position and I’ll tell you why.
I don’t read Chinese, so I couldn’t fully experiment with the system, but here’s my understanding of the whole thing. The genius of WeChat is that the messaging app incorporates a framework that allows you to create and connect extensions/apps called “Mini Programs”. There are now so many millions of mini-programs available that WeChat has become “almost an OS by itself“. Since those mini-programs are very service-oriented, developing them is quite easy.
I’m overstating here, but once you download WeChat to your phone, you almost won’t need to download other apps from the Apple Store or Play Store. All the services you’ll ever need when you live in China have a WeChat mini program. And when I say everything, I mean absolutely freaking everything! Whether you’re filing a tax form, paying taxes, paying any kind of bill, booking a plane, train, hotel, or taxi, ordering anything online, buying or exchanging something. Every shop or restaurant has a mini-program that lets you check the menu online, book a table, or order takeaway. Don’t want to wait in line? Just scan a QR Code and get a virtual ticket instantly. You can open doors and even get into your building by scanning a QR code via WeChat. At any time of the day or night, you can use WeChat to order as little as one can of beer and have it delivered for free within 30 minutes to your door! On top of that, if you open the “radar”, you’ll see all restaurants, shops, and services that have a mini program near you. Click, install it, and you can instantly chat with someone there or book online. Same for a doctor or anything you can imagine.
Trust me, the Chinese are very creative and have no limits about this: If it’s convenient, they’ll do it. Just spend 24 hours with a Chinese person and you’ll be blown away by how this app makes every little thing faster and easier in their everyday life. It’s difficult to go back once you experience it. WeChat becomes your key, your dashboard, your messaging and payment system, and more, all at once. Trust me, when Chinese come to Europe or USA they feel like we are still in the stone age.
Let me give you an example. As Hong Kong was under western influence for decades, its banking system continued to use outdated payment systems such as Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. As a result, compared to the rest of China, Hong Kong is lagging in terms of payment systems. And even though Hong Kong has developed its own system (the Octopus card), it’s not as powerful as the Chinese ones because it’s a separate app that is not integrated in a whole big and interconnected framework like WeChat Pay is in within WeChat. As there are not many places in Hong Kong here where you can pay using digital wallets such as WeChat Pay or even Alipay (Alibaba’s payment system), it frustrates Mainland Chinese people who come to Hong Kong. Compared to the technological level and flexibility of the payment systems in China, Chinese people living in big Chinese cities think that Hong Kong is too slow, it’s an undeveloped country, like the rest of the world.
Here is another example. In Europe we discovered just 3 or 4 years ago digital-only banks you can manage from your mobile. But these digital-only banks, generally in partnership with MasterCard are just an evolution of an old banking system that’s already outdated and almost dead. In comparison Chinses people will never know digital-only banking, they skipped this stage and switched directly from the old fashion bank system we all know and suffer to Digital Wallet and soon Digital Yuan. Regarding Digital Yuan, it will enable the 200 million Chinses that do not have a bank account to have a payment method via a mobile. In Africa too, hundreds of millions of humans does not have a bank account, but they all have a mobile. A Digital currency/crypto like Zynecoin might be a game changer against the classic outdated and about to collapse banking system.
As I told you, I don’t read Chinese, so I’m probably skipping thousands of other noteworthy applications, but here’s the one that really caught my attention. I heard that if you jaywalk in certain Chinese cities, a facial recognition camera will instantly send a fine to your WeChat Pay account. By the time you cross the street, you won’t have enough money left to pay for lunch.
It may be possible to develop a WeChat OS and have just that on a phone because there are so many mini-programs and extensions for Chinese people. This app has become the tool that manages the lives of the Chinese. Tencent, the owner of WeChat, is almost the most powerful banking system in the world. Visa and MasterCard have almost disappeared in China. Only hotels and big western brands or shops still use them. Even homeless in the streets have a QR code and might not accept coins because they use WeChat or Alipay. Almost no vending machine use coins and no one uses cash or credit cards anymore in China. Can you imagine?
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg can only dream of having one-hundredth of WeChat’s features. And even if you could merge the 30 most used app westerners uses every day in a single one, you’ll be far away from what WeChat is because at least 50% of features and service available in WeChat just don’t exists elsewhere yet. When we talk to the Chinese about Facebook, when we show them our American app, they feel sorry for us. If nobody has Facebook in China, it’s not because it’s forbidden, but because it’s 10 years behind what’s available in China. The only people who have Facebook in China are the ones who are interested in acting like “rebels” or embracing the “American Way of Life”. But the app is no use to them. When it comes to bans or censorship, we must understand that any Chinese could install YouTube, Facebook, or WhatsApp on their mobiles and use VPNs to access the so-called “free world”. It is very easy to do, and every single foreigner living in China do it without any problems. If the Chinese don’t do it, it’s because they’re already far ahead of the West in terms of social networking.
At this point, you should understand one thing: If you’re Chinese and don’t have WeChat installed on your mobile, you won’t survive more than 24 hours in a city. Everybody in China, practically all 1.4 billion people, use and depend on WeChat. WeChat is so advanced and convenient it is beyond the imagination of westerners. It’s science fiction. Remember, Chinse have no limits and if it’s convenient, they’ll do it. We have no equivalent to WeChat and even worse, we would not autorise ourselves to imagine and create all the services and features WeChat can provide. But for a Chinese person, WeChat is no joke. It’s a matter of life and death.
I hope you found this first article interesting, please let me know in the comments what’s your thoughts about it. Also note that I’m just talking about this app in terms of its technology and convenience. The very real political, pros and cons China, social and mass-control issues behind it are not the subject of this article.
If you want to know more about how QR codes are used in China, you can check this article from Connie Chan on Andreessen Horowitz website