In China, We DO Chat, Don't We?

Aug 3, 2017 12:30:00 PM / by Julie Ritz

Words by Colin Speakman, Resident Director for CAPA Shanghai. Colin also writes a monthly column, “Connecting Global Cities”, which posts the third Thursday of every month.

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CAPA students coming to study in Shanghai  (and indeed any foreigner coming to China intending to make local contacts) need to open a WeChat account - and before they set off from home. If not familiar with WeChat, think of What's App the messaging platform. 

However WeChat goes much further in its role in China. It is owned by Tencent which is already Asia's biggest company by value and those that know forecast it to be one-of the top three in the world in the coming decade.

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Photo: The WeChat App bottom left on Colin's smartphone

Tencent itself has many other activities including a top internet gaming player and rapidly growing online payment services. WeChat is fast approaching 1 billion users out of a 1.3 billion population. When in China virtually any local will ask for your WeChat ID rather than your phone number or email - although you will need a phone number to set up and verify a WeChat account at the start, WeChat  voice messages replace phone calls, WeChat  written messages replace text messages and documents posted on WeChat replace email attachments. WeChat is great for photo sharing and creating member groups. 

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Photo: A sample WeChat group with QR code to join 

WeChat is a powerful platform which Chinese smartphone users think is more important than the features of the smartphone itself - WeChat works well with IOS and Android and is a factor in less expensive Android phones having a large market share at the expense of Apple in China. 

A very important function that has developed is WeChat Pay with the WeChat wallet maintained on the smartphone. A Chinese bank account is needed to link to the Wallet and verification for many services needs a Chinese SIM card phone number by joining up with China Mobile or China Unicom. 

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Photo: with WeChat pay drinks orders can be prepaid 

Since there are so many important functions that need smartphone technology, a basic local old style cellphone is inadequate and foreigners should use their quality Western smartphone from home unlocked and able to accept a local SIM card. 

Increasingly stores are incentivising shoppers to abandon cash and pay by WeChat Pay (or Alibaba's Ali-Pay) with the smartphone scanned QR codes.  Pretty essential uses are to top up transit cards in metro station machines, to sign up to rent accessible bikes such as Mobike and Ofo, to buy online and collect printable Cinema tickets, to receive funds from and make payments to contacts in China, to keep up to date with WeChat hosted news, lifestyle and entertainment sites and much more.

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Photo: CAPA's Shanghai Resident Director on a WeChat paid rented bike 

Such has been the popularity of WeChat with local  Chinese that major stores in Europe are setting up systems to accept WeChat payments from Chinese traveling  and shopping abroad. 

So to be able to engage efficiently with contacts in China set up that WeChat account, get a Chinese SIM Card and a local Chinese bank account - you'll be half way to thinking and acting like a local. 

Thanks, Colin!

Learn More about the CAPA Shanghai Program

Topics: Shanghai, China, Cultural Insights