For every app that I use, there is a China equivalent that I put into a category on my phone called “China.”
This screenshot reminds me of how self-contained China’s tech ecosystem has become. Chinese people use Chinese apps. Non-Chinese people use non-Chinese apps. Those who travel back and forth, like me, usually have two apps for the same functionality.
Recently, I brought some American guests around China. This experience reminded me of how technology may have made China even more impenetrable and unnavigable to foreign visitors.
Thanks to WeChat Pay and Alipay, paying for goods and services in China is more convenient than ever – but only for Chinese people. Both Alipay and WeChat Pay require a Chinese bank account and/or phone number – something that you can’t expect a foreign visitor to have. Many shops and restaurants no longer accept cash or credit cards. Alibaba’s offline supermarket, Hema, only accepts Alipay. Across China, you can find unmanned convenience stores, gyms, and smart vending machines that require scanning a QR code to unlock and Alipay/WeChat pay for payment. Any Chinese person can whip out their smartphone, scan a QR code and buy breakfast at a roadside stall in two seconds. For our foreign friends though, no amount of cash would buy them a coffee in the morning at an unmanned convenience store.
As China slowly develops into a cashless society, a goal Alibaba proudly states, foreigners without a Chinese bank account might find it harder and harder to pay for things. Many of my non-Chinese friends use me as an ATM machine before they go to China: They would ask me to transfer them some RMB through WeChat, and would pay me back the equivalent in dollars on Venmo, so that they have some deposit in WeChat Pay to pay for things in China. This is clearly not a sustainable solution. (There is even a website, Vpayfast, that specializes in helping foreigners recharge their WeChat & Alipay wallets in their domestic currency.)
Thanks to Meituan-Dianping, finding a good restaurant or ordering food delivery in China is more convenient than ever before – for Chinese people. The Yelp-like Dianping app has an exhaustive catalog of restaurants in Chinese cities with extensive reviews and recommended dishes – written in Chinese only. On Dianping and Ele.me, you can order a vast variety of takeout food for incredibly cheap prices and enjoy delivery within 20 minutes – but this is impractical if you don’t read Chinese or have a Chinese payment method/phone number.
Taking a high-speed train in China is more convenient than ever before – for Chinese people. For many trains, Chinese passengers no longer need to stand in line to collect a physical ticket; they can simply book a trip online and tap their shen fen zheng (identification card) at the gate to board the train. But foreigners? They still need to stand in a long line to collect a physical ticket with their passport.
I still remember the time that I landed at Beijing Capital Airport after my freshman year in the US. Back then my phone was locked into my AT&T SIM card, which meant I could not use my phone with a non-US SIM card. So I didn’t have Internet after I landed. I could not connect to the airport wifi which ironically requires a Chinese phone number to log into. Because I had no Internet, I could not call a Didi. I could not check AutoNavi/Baidu Maps to see how to get to my address. I could not WeChat my family or friends to let them know that I had safely arrived. I had to ask the Information Desk how to get to my destination, and it took me a few days before I was able to get a wifi router and start to have Internet on my phone.
Here I was, a local Chinese person who grew up in China and speaks Chinese as a native language, feeling lost at my own country’s airport. Just imagine what it would be like for a foreign person who does not speak any Chinese and has never been to China.
Technology is transforming China into a remarkably convenient and efficient society in many ways, but also making the country increasingly un-navigable for foreigners. Due to the language barrier and other reasons, non-Chinese people are often excluded from many wonderful technological innovations that are changing China by the day.
Some Chinese tech companies have started to realize the need to serve foreign users. The ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing has rolled out an English version. Non-Chinese users can now link international credit cards, input their address in English, and communicate with their driver in English (the app automatically translates messages into Chinese). This is a demonstration of how technology has the potential to make China more navigable to foreign visitors (in the old days, foreigners had to hail taxis on the street, pass the driver a piece of paper with their address, and pray that they don’t get gouged).
Of course, it would be impractical to have an English version of all apps. Many Chinese tech giants can become multi-billion dollar companies by serving Chinese users alone, and the number of foreign visitors in China is negligibly small compared to the 1.4 billion local population.
China leads the world in e-commerce adoption and mobile payment, and has developed many innovative products and business models. However, it can be hard for non-Chinese people to appreciate this if they cannot experience it firsthand.
I suggest several tips for foreign friends who want to visit China:
1. Bring an unlocked phone and get a Chinese SIM card and phone number with data immediately after you land in China. Most airports have vendors selling these. Do not count on public WiFi networks, which usually require a Chinese phone number to log into (I know, I find this frustrating too).
2. If you use Gmail, set up auto-forwarding from your Gmail account to another email account (such as Microsoft or Yahoo!) that’s not blocked in China before you leave. It will make your life so much easier.
3. If you like to listen to podcasts or watch Youtube videos, download lots before you leave for China, where you will hardly be able to stream/download.
4. Download these apps before leaving for China (once you get there, downloading apps can become tricky especially if you have an Android phone, since Google Play is blocked): WeChat, Baidu Maps/AutoNavi Maps (for getting around), Didi Chuxing (for getting taxis), Dianping (for finding restaurants and shops), Moji Weather (for checking the weather and air pollution level), Ctrip (for booking train tickets/flights if you’re traveling within China).
5. Learn Chinese. It will be more useful than you think in the long term.
I write a weekly email newsletter on tech trends in China, and co-host a podcast on US-China cross-border tech. Subscribe and listen at 996.ggvc.com.