Mobile innovation in China is flourishing, bringing new conveniences to daily life. Is that happening despite or because of the country’s strict controls on online expression?
While I got up to hand my credit card to the waiter, my friend transmitted her half of the bill to my WeChat Wallet account with a few clicks on her gold iPhone 6. As we strolled outside toward the Workers’ Stadium, enjoying the balmy spring evening, she hailed a taxi using the app Didi Chuxing, which arranges 14 million rides a day in China. A driver would pick her up in three minutes. Sometimes, she explained, she also checks Uber, but since it has fewer cars on the road and typically longer wait times in Beijing, she—like most of my Chinese friends—prefers Didi.
It’s hard to overstate how quickly the mobile Internet has transformed the social rhythms of urban life, including a Saturday night out, in China’s cities. This is especially the case among the younger and wealthier folks most likely to wield the newest smartphones, but it’s not true only for them. Among the country’s roughly 690 million Internet users, 620 million now go online using a mobile device. Far more than the U.S., China is truly a “mobile first” market.
The homegrown companies unfurling these innovations are doing it in a country with some of the world’s tightest restrictions on the Internet. Even beyond the censorship imposed by the Communist Party and the bans on connections to overseas Web services, the government pays as many as two million people, by some estimates, to flood social media with posts “devoted primarily to distraction through cheerleading for the state,” as scholars from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California, San Diego, showed in a paper in May. You can feel the vast operation of Web filtering in action because the Chinese Internet is often excruciatingly slow. Like most professionals in China who need to view global news or scholarly journals published elsewhere, I spend a considerable amount of time waiting for websites to load and impatiently hitting “reload.” That’s a (probably) unintended consequence of the Great Firewall, China’s system for inspecting incoming Web traffic. It slows things down much the way a security checkpoint slows cars on a highway.
These stark contrasts—an Internet that is simultaneously dynamic and lethargic, innovative and stultifying, liberating yet tightly controlled—are easier to understand when you realize they are not necessarily contradictions. Being forbidden to develop tools for stimulating free expression or transparency essentially forces Chinese entrepreneurs to concentrate their resources on services that facilitate commerce, convenience, and entertainment. And the more successful those kinds of businesses become, the more money they and their investors have at stake, possibly cementing the status quo.
The Chinese dream
People in China who never had checkbooks or credit cards, and who previously handed their landlords thick stacks of 100-yuan notes every three months (each worth about $15 today), now use financial apps like WeChat Wallet and Alipay to pay rent. The absence of many legacy banking services, such as checking accounts, may have hastened the adoption of mobile banking in China: according to a 2013 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Chinese consumers were nearly twice as likely as respondents in other countries to say they expected their phone to be the primary way they made purchases in the future (55 percent vs. 29 percent).
China’s new affinity for online shopping has powered the rise of Alibaba (whose gross merchandise volume has grown threefold over the past four years, to about $475 billion) and other giant online retailers, including rival JD.com. These companies have knitted together extensive delivery and courier services that can send sweatpants, jade necklaces, or refrigerators to just about every courtyard home in Beijing’s winding old alleys and each apartment in 30-story high-rises in second-, third-, and fourth-tier markets. In small cities that never had brick-and-mortar luxury shopping malls, the aspiring rich now sport Gucci labels.
Meanwhile, farmers in crumbling stone homes in tiny villages, like Bishan (population 2,800) in southern Anhui province, which I visited in 2014, can now peddle their organic radishes to urban foodies using the same platforms, sometimes charging a hefty premium for veggies grown without pesticides to newly health-conscious Chinese shoppers.
No matter where you go across the country today—from booming megacities to the increasingly desolate countryside—you see online delivery men steering electric bicycles, with metal carts hitched behind …. (read more)