When you travel across Europe or the United States, you can usually rely on your daily go-to apps like Google Maps, Dropbox, Medium, Tinder, Gmail, Spotify and Uber. In China, none of these work.
China’s unique and insular tech culture has spawned an entirely different set of companies and products that people trust and love. If you’re headed to China, or simply want to educate yourself about the Chinese tech landscape, we’ve summarized the essentials for you:
Where Is The Innovation?
First, some quick geography. There are five major areas of startup and technology. Beijing is the clear tech center. Baidu, the “Google of China”, is headquartered there and many others also choose the capital due to government proximity.
Shenzhen is a center for technology due to its factories which produce all types of manufacturing, both low and high tech. The key corporate resident of note is Tencent, the juggernaut owner of WeChat, QQ and dozens of other essential Chinese tech products, websites and games.
Shanghai, while an international business center, is known more for banking than technology, although a few notable companies call the city home.
Who’s On Top?
Hundreds of Chinese companies, products, and apps exist in every industry and vertical, so choosing only ten to feature is no easy task. We just want to make sure you know the common household names as well as useful products like Alipay and WePay which are owned by them.
1. WeChat (Social Networking)
If you could only pick one app, then get WeChat. With over 800 million active users, WeChat from Tencent is the one app to rule them all, combining social networking, multi-media messaging, and a rich ecosystem of capabilities that enable you to order taxis, buy movie tickets, pay your bills, and virtually anything you can imagine. You can even manage investments, donate to charities, and hire a dog washer on the platform! To learn the essential features of WeChat, check out our handy guide.
2. Baidu (Search)
Baidu is the king of search, the Google of China. Similar to Google, the company produces popular utilitarian products like Baidu Maps, which is one of the most popular navigation apps in the country. While the company has lagged Tencent and Alibaba in terms of recent growth, Baidu has been making significant investments in artificial intelligence, education and healthcare. Recently the company launched Duer OS, a conversational A.I. platform similar to Amazon’s Alexa.
3. Alibaba (E-Commerce)
On the e-commerce side, Alibaba is the dominant player. Taobao, owned by Alibaba, is a fee-free marketplace that connects buyers and sellers, similar to eBay but without the auction. The company generates revenue by selling ads against select pages and search results. Alibaba also owns Tmall, the site that that sells more branded products similar to Amazon Marketplace. Together, with Taobao, Tmall and its other ecommerce properties, Alibaba dominates almost 80% of all e-commerce in China.
The two top mobile payment platforms are Alibaba’s Alipay and WeChat Pay. Alipay tends to be used for larger purchases, and WeChat pay was traditionally seen more as a P2P (peer to peer) payment method. Residents in Tier 1 cities such as Shanghai and Beijing can go months without using cash. Even your trusty neighborhood fruit stand will have either one of these two payment systems available.
5. Weibo (Social Networking)
Weibo is the “Twitter of China” and went through a renaissance period of spectacular growth over the last few years. In 2013, the company started the strategy of paying niche-focused celebrities to influence the lower and middle classes of China on topics such as finance, education, travel, and more. The approach was a hit, generating 40% year over year growth of revenue and user base. Weibo is now larger than Twitter in both market cap and users. Perhaps we should start saying that Twitter is the “Weibo” of America?
6. Momo (Dating)
Momo was the first mainstream dating app in China. Like Tinder, the product was initially deemed as a “hookup” tool and had to include broader social networking feature to shake off the unfavorable reputable. Now, Momo also has a live streaming mode which is culturally very popular with the Chinese.
7. Meitu (Photos)
Meitu’s photo filter app is growing at a meteoric rate and recently made a huge push into the Western market. This company recently IPO’ed with a $5.2 billion valuation. Many Chinese women will only take photos that are filtered by Meitu because the app can fix their complexions, make their skin whiter, cheeks rosier, eyes larger, and faces slimmer. Nearly 50% of all selfies taken in China are processed by Meitu.
8. YouKu (Video)
YouKu is the Youtube of China, but was acquired by Alibaba for $4.8 billion in 2015 to bolster the company’s competitiveness with Baidu and Tencent in capturing internet user attention. Given that there are more Chinese who consumer internet video with mobile phones than there are total people living in America, this was a smart move by Jack Ma.
9. Didi ChuXing (Ride Sharing)
When Uber tried to enter China, Didi easily beat them out and acquired their Chinese assets in 2016. The company serves 300 million riders in 400 cities across China. Uber took 6 years to service 6 billion rides, while Didi drove 1.4 billion rides just in 2015, making the company the leading ride-sharing service in the world.
10. NetEase (Gaming)
NetEase is an old guard Chinese tech company which came on the scene during the Yahoo era. Unlike Yahoo, the company made a remarkable comeback by focusing on gaming and other markets. While not widely considered to be the most technically advanced or fastest mover, the company has a reputation for building solid products that reliably grow market share.