Technology in China: An Observation

As I just returned from a holiday to China1, I wanted to share some of my observations about technology there. This is only meant as a general overview and is completely based on what I saw around me so I’d recommend against trying to put too much value on it.

Why this article?

China is in a special position where it concerns technology. It is both the country where most of our devices are made, and a country where people don’t have access to a lot of the things we take for granted when using those devices. This dichotomy is what to me makes it such an interesting place for technology.

In many ways the country is very insular, unable to access these services, but having fully functional replacements that in turn are barely used in other countries. My experience is obviously limited, I spent 10 days in the country, 3 days in and around Guangzhou and a week in Beijing. I didn’t spend any time at technology focused places, while I crossed the border at Shenzhen I immediately took a train there2 and I didn’t get around to the tech markets in Beijing. Instead I focus on what I saw in actual use in public.

Hardware

This obviously leads to the main tool in use: the mobile phone. It probably doesn’t come as a great surprise that most phones were Chinese brands such as Xiaomi and Oppo, or that despite this the most common single brand was the iPhone3. It seems that anyone who can afford it wants to have an iPhone, including at least one professional Android developer.

To be fair, this could be a case of confirmation bias. For me, the iPhone is easiest to recognize so it’s quite possible that I assigned it a far greater percentage than it actually has. I did check this with others though and they agreed with my assessment4.

Continuing with the looks of the phones, there was a very clear preference for bigger phones, with one glaring exception. While it wasn’t all that surprising to see the smaller iPhone 55 models I was very surprised by the number of iPhone 4 models I saw. This truly shows to me that it’s more about status than functionality. Especially in China you can get far better phones than an at least 5-year old iPhone for very little money.

Just the phones of course doesn’t mean much, and while I’ll soon have a look at the software, for now let’s see how they are actually used. Phone usage seemed to be far heavier than I’m used to in Australia. It was completely normal to have people watching videos or playing games6 in the streets or subway. That’s not limited to China, but it also seems these people weren’t much of a fan of headphones7 as everything was played out loud.

The heavy usage often went combined with power adapters several times the size of the phone, and constantly charging through colorful cables. A special place however is reserved for taxi drivers8. These take the use of their phones to the next level. Often they’ll have two phones, one to show a map application and the other for their constant usage of Wechat while driving.

Obviously, phones aren’t the only thing technology wise. In general there is a weird mix of modern and old tech. In stores you can have very sleek terminals or screens that make the original lack and white gameboy look like big and high resolution. And then there are street vendors trying to sell you a shirt where the pattern reacts to music or a small quadcopter.

The last technology items I want to mention were in very high usage: X-ray scanners and metal detectors. Especially in Beijing these were set up everywhere. Their alleged usage was for security, but to be honest they didn’t make me feel safe. The reverse was more true. Having to go through them 4 times when walking to and from a restaurant feels far more like a way to intimidate the population and instill fear than anything else.

Software and services

This section shows not only what I noticed, but also my own experience. I’ve already mentioned how China has a lot of services that replace others we might be familiar with and the main one is Wechat. Despite the name, this is far more than a messaging app. In many places, such as museums, you will find QR codes that are integrated with Wechat. Additionally it is the main payment method other than cash.

Wechatpay-Great-Wall

While Apple Pay9 was available in places, I didn’t really see anyone use it but I saw dozens of Wechat payments per day. As it involves scanning a QR code and manually specifying the amount before showing the proof, it isn’t as easy to do as Apple Pay. But it works everywhere and with any phone. And the biggest issue of needing to have Wechat open? That’s not an issue at all. To be honest, I don’t see Apple Pay making major inroads against Wechat Pay as it’s everywhere.

The main service I interacted with was Baidu. Both as the search engine (no Western one worked) and the map. They both work well enough, but with searches you notice that every single result is checked. Many links for non-Chinese sites actually take you to “local copies”. Maps on the other hand worked well, with a lot of functionality including expected taxi fares for routes and other things you expect from a good mapping tool. The one glaring exception was when we were going to visit the Great Wall as Baidu Maps was completely unaware of the train going there that was built for the Olympics in Beijing.

This was something that did work with Apple Maps, but unsurprisingly that app had its own share of flaws. Of course, for most visitors Apple Maps will be a better solution as it’s not in Chinese.

A note about the Great Firewall, first of all it is quite interesting to see what does and doesn’t work. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Slack were the major ones I ran into. In itself missing these isn’t a real problem, until you realize how much of the internet depends on some of these things. Link shorteners owned by these companies? Nope sorry. Authentication? Nah. RSS feeds using one of these? No again.

Other things do work though, Feedbin for my news (which sort of made me happy about Google Reader’s demise) but also Instapaper. Which means that even links you can’t read you can still send there and then read it in Instapaper.

Oh and of course I cheated. I got a SIM-card in Hong Kong that gave me 2GB of data to use in China that circumvented the firewall10. It had its own limitations though as uploading photos didn’t work very well (I managed it once to Twitter), but obviously I highly recommend having a way around the firewall if you go for a visit, especially if you have an Android phone or heavily rely on Google services. And of course, if you want to use hotel wifi (for backing up photos for example) you’ll still be stuck behind the firewall there.

In conclusion

While I very much enjoyed my holiday and mostly focused on the amazing sights, I couldn’t help myself from noticing and comparing technology. For example it turns out that explaining your job when that involves both AWS and “the cloud” is very difficult if the other side has no idea what those are despite them building apps11.

Because of this I feel like I got some more insight into what we take for granted and how equally viable alternatives work. Hopefully I managed to convey that a bit in the above.


  1. Technically I wrote this on the flight home, but as I don’t post it until I’m home that’s close enough. [return]
  2. I was with my girlfriend’s family, on our way for a one day family visit near Guangzhou. Not really the time for looking at technology. [return]
  3. Samsung seemed underrepresented compared to Australia. Obviously for Android phones the Chinese brands are far more popular. [return]
  4. This was first apparent when I met my girlfriend’s Chinese family. In the mix of about 15 phones I saw, there was one Android phone belonging to an older family member. [return]
  5. I’m not going to distinguish between the regular and S versions. [return]
  6. Not Pokémon, and yes I checked if it worked. [return]
  7. I almost feel like attention given to the headphone jack removal in the iPhone 7 told them what that hole in the phone was actually for. [return]
  8. By the way, don’t bother trying to use a seatbelt when you get into a taxi in Beijing. They’re disabled. At which point you really start to notice how much time your driver spends looking at his phone instead of the road. [return]
  9. As a Google service, Android Pay wasn’t available anymore than any other Google service. [return]
  10. I assume you’d get the same result with roaming from your usual plan but that will be a lot more expensive. [return]
  11. It doesn’t help when you both only speak a couple of words in the other’s language and the translator isn’t technically inclined. [return]
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