December 21, 2018
On a recent trip to China, I was surprised by the different ways people interact and use technology. On arrival, it was immediately obvious that I wouldn’t be able to use my phone the way I was used to in the UK due to China’s wide-scale government regulations and technologies, known as the Great Firewall of China. Essentially, this is a block between China and international internet applications and traffic, which enables the government to have visibility and control over the nation’s internet usage.
Once I’d unpacked my suitcase and connected to Wi-Fi, I downloaded all the Chinese essentials – WeChat. It seems strange to say ‘all the essentials’ and only list one application, but it really is all I needed over the two weeks. I’ve heard people say that WeChat is the equivalent of Facebook but having used it, comparing the two is not right. It’s more of a Swiss-army knife application, combining social, business, payments and messaging functionalities all in one easy-to-use app.
Due to the Great Firewall, the nation has had an application revolution that’s independent of elsewhere in the world. In the early stages of this revolution, applications may have been limited by this restrictive environment but now the application far supersedes the utility of applications in the West and certainly dominates Chinese phone screen time.
You see, on an average day, I wake up and I may check BBC news for a quick update, then Apple weather. Then I’ll have a scroll through social media while I’m brushing my teeth, Facebook for events, Instagram for pictures, Twitter for thoughts and to see what’s trending and so on. Out the door and heading to work, I’ll check CityMapper or even Google Maps to see if the trains and tubes are running late and I’ll use my Apple Wallet when I hop on the bus to avoid the British showers. On route, I’ll Whatsapp a friend to check plans for the evening and book a dinner table on OpenTable or ring up. The list goes on and on. Before 9am I could have used at least 10 applications all serving different purposes.
In China you use one – WeChat. WeChat to check the news, order a DiDi (Chinese Uber), interact and socialise with friends, send money to – or even pre-order at – restaurants, pay for the subway and even voice or video call colleagues or friends. The list really is endless.
In terms of convenience and quality, WeChat is unparalleled by Western applications. However, in light of recent scandals that have befallen tech giants like Facebook, such as the Cambridge Analytica debacle, it does raise questions as to whether one application should have such a market dominance.
Another red flag that appears with such an all-encompassing application is in regard to GDPR, the new data regulations that were implemented across Europe this year. Since the government has the ability to review, and even censor, data on and from the app, what does that mean for the application in a Western regulatory context? As a response, the European version of the app has split from its parent application in its privacy policies. The European app remains useable by deleting account information after periods of inactivity and with chat records only being stored for 72 hours before being permanently deleted.
Ultimately, the way we use applications in the UK reflects our cautious nature, spreading our data across a variety of often single-use applications, avoiding one monopolising control. Conversely, China’s applications have risen out of a desire for control but in many ways have mastered the market in both utility and quality.