Editor’s Note: My eldest son has been back in the US for about three weeks after spending a semester in Yunnan province, China. Although Nate and I kept in touch via online chat programs, it’s great to have him at home for a while before he returns to Yunnan for a second semester. I asked Nate to write up some of his observations about life in China, especially his experience with the internet, mobile connectivity and web apps. Our conversations provided me with a lot of food for thought regarding China’s telecom sector and the US market. I hope you enjoy it.
One thing that struck me after getting home is how accustomed I had become to the internet in China during my the three-and-a-half months in Yunnan province.
I first realized this when I tried to access Youtube—a website that’s thoroughly blocked in China—on my laptop. Whereas typing “you” into my browser had brought me to Youtube in the past, now it brings me to China’s Youtube-Netflix hybrid, Youku.
In the next several hundred words, I’ll try to use my experiences to shares some of the nuances internet access and use in China and, perhaps, debunk some misconceptions along the way.
I do not mean to imply that my experiences are indicative of the whole of China; however, what I observed has interested those I’ve spoken to about it. I hope this article will do the same for you, too.
The city of Kunming in Yunnan province differs dramatically from Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and the other economic powerhouses nearer to China’s coast. For one, Yunnan is China’s third-least-developed province. That means more farmland, greenery and outdated vehicles with external engines—as well as fewer buildings, BMWs and, crucially, less smog.
Still, at 6.5 million people, the Kunming metropolitan area is larger than all but four US metropolitan areas. And you, like me, had probably never heard of the city before.
Just like people in any American city, Kunmingers love the internet, social media and smartphones. But they may not interact with them in the ways you’d expect.
First off, access to internet via Wi-Fi or ethernet is never a guarantee. The university’s dorms provided international students with internet through staggered routers in the hallways and an ethernet jack in our rooms that we can use to siphon Wi-Fi after purchasing and installing our own router.
We were allotted 120 hours of internet usage per month, after which we would be cut off. The software to access the internet required us to sign off manually each time we finished a session; forgetting to do so would waste precious minutes. This setup cuts down on idle browsing.
Cafes located on and off campus were our best options for unlimited internet access. Aside from a few glorious hours in the early afternoon, the cafes were invariably packed with hungry bandwidth suckers, both local and international.
The only other publicly accessible internet havens were internet bars, usually located in former karaoke joints, vacant workspaces or the bowels of a super mall.
On several occasions, I’d round a corner expecting to find the billboard-advertised karaoke bar or restaurant and instead encounter a chilling expanse of desks, cubicles, and chairs occupied, to the last, by gaming zombies.
Do you want to know the worst part? They wouldn’t ever let me play!
To access the internet or log a couple consecutive days in the fantastic video-game escape that is World of Warcraft, you have to provide the Chinese equivalent of a social security number—which left me on the outside, looking in.
Based on what I’ve outlined so far, you might conclude that China lacks the West’s connectivity. Don’t be so hasty.
After several weeks of watching videos buffer and loading Basic-HTML websites, I decided to ask one of my new Chinese friends about how he uses the internet. He responded that he rarely uses Wi-Fi or ethernet connections—everything a university student, or anyone else, needs is available on a smartphone.
The next day he took me to the China Unicom store. Three emperors rule China’s telecom sector: China Mobile (Hong Kong: 941, NYSE: CHL), China Unicom (Hong Kong: 762, NYSE: CHU) and China Telecom Corp (Hong Kong: 728, NYSE: CHA).
A Bloomberg terminal will tell you that China Mobile has more than 800 million subscribers, making the company the leading wireless provider in China and the world. But the word on the street is that China Unicom’s download speeds are slightly faster. You’re welcome.
At home in the DC area, my parents and two younger siblings—all of us bandwidth-obliterating vacuums—share a data plan capped at 10 gigabytes (GB). This allotment never lasts for an entire month, and data overages get expensive quickly.
Our house rules dictate that you connect to Wi-Fi, not the cellular data network, when using your smartphone at home. From what I can tell, no such code exists, or is even necessary, in China. The cellular plan my Chinese friend, who I later named Sean, steered me toward gave me 18 GB of wireless data per month, all to myself! Mwahaha!
Smartphones are used for everything and by everyone in China, perhaps even more so than in the US.
Consider this excerpt from this Business Insider article on mobile internet use in China for some outside perspective: “the total number of people accessing the web in China is more than double the entire population of the United States. Or, if you prefer, 28 Australias.”
The same piece asserts that 89 percent of the people in China who access the internet do so via smartphones and mobile data.
A staggering portion of that access takes place through a single smartphone application: WeChat.
According to Tencent Holdings (Hong Kong: 700, OTC: TCEHY), the company behind WeChat, application’s monthly active user base in China totaled more than 700 million in March 2016. Every Chinese person I met last fall asked me for my WeChat.
Why do so many people use this one app? Where to begin.
You can use WeChat to voice and video chat; text your family and friends; host group chats between coworkers or friends; share pictures like on Instagram; share various other media and documents; update your news feed and keep in touch with friends just like on Facebook; read the news from almost any source; listen to podcasts; chat with potential hook-ups like on Tinder or Grindr; pay people and request payments; call China’s version of Uber (Didi); book train tickets; reserve hotels; order food to be delivered; shop for everything from clothing to household appliances; buy movie tickets; make dinner reservations; book karaoke bars and more—so much more. The possibilities are overwhelming.
I’m not trying to sell WeChat to you; the app’s cute, colorful buttons do that well enough on their own. Why download a boatload of single-function apps when you can have them all in one? Facebook Messenger played us for fools.
Whether it’s for streaming movies or TV series on phones, sending anime-style emoticons to potential dates, stalking friends by looking at their posts and pictures, or booking a hotel room and simultaneously ordering food to be delivered to that room, the internet is omnipresent in China.
And although the ways Americans and Chinese use the internet vary, its effects are familiar: family, social and work gatherings where everyone is glued to their screens instead of talking and engaging with their immediate surroundings.
In Mandarin Chinese, people who are dependent on their mobile devices, smartphone addicts, are called “the heads-lowered ethnicity” (dee-tow-zoo).
More than 3 billion people around the world access the internet through computers or smartphones to simplify their lives. But the convenience and connectivity that the internet brings may entrap us. In the new year, let’s see if we can’t look down at our screens a little less.
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