Why 2018 is the year to get on WeChat

Happy New Year!

While back in the UK over Christmas, I was a bit befuddled at the local Co-op when seeing my pound coins rejected as I paid for a Pain au Chocolat (a pastry that I highly recommend). I was told by the cashier that there were new pound coins now.

And sure enough there were: shiny round things happily joining our fancy new banknotes. Ok, that’s not entirely true. They were shiny bumpy round things. Round, but not quite. A bit like our planet.

The Bumpy Round Pound Coins, featuring 12 sides, are such a departure from the old, somewhat heavier, version that they are described as a “big leap” by the Royal Mint’s chief engraver in a lengthy page on Wired.

But as I admired the Big Leap Bumpy Round Pound Coins shining in my palm, I couldn’t help but think of China’s cashless revolution and how mobile apps were replacing their (not so shiny) money. Our leap was “big”. Their’s? (Don’t say Great Leap.)

WeChat is the darling of China’s cashless society, coming a long way since the time it was a mere casual dating app (give your phone a shake to discover a random person nearby, and erm..well, whatever happened next, happened next). It’s China’s answer to Facebook, which ironically also started life as a dating platform of sorts.

Now with more gizmos than the average 007 Aston Martin, WeChat continues to evolve. It probably won’t be long before China’s space command centre uses the app somewhere in its planned lunar landing.

WeChat’s popularity is such that The Guardian has noticed, with a piece on owner Tencent:

As the UK pivots east towards Asia, and possibly south towards Africa and maybe even Central Asia (and now I’m really making this up), WeChat is going to figure quite prominently in the coming years.

China is planning to build roads, railroads and, ah, sea roads in their trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, meaning that WeChat will have a role in all of these infrastructure projects – not just for chitchat but for sending and receiving money. That’s a big deal.

Anyone heading east to work in places like China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia will sooner or later have to install WeChat owing to the popularity of the app. Belt and Road will increase WeChat’s exposure further, so to these countries we can add Egypt, Kazakshstan, Kenya and Uzbekistan, among others.

And even if we don’t pack our bags, will will probably have to download it anyway when communicating with our farflung colleagues and business partners in Asia: WeChat is increasingly used for voice and video calls – rather like Skype.

Lest you start thinking this is a puff piece for WeChat, consider this: partly because of its versatility, WeChat is a tad complicated. It’s not as user-friendly as WhatsApp or Facebook (and I’m not getting started on WeChat for brands), and can feel quirky at times.

Which is another reason to start now – to get a feel for it before it takes off in earnest.

Selling to people in cashless China? There’s an app for that

Young Asian woman

Queueing at the Post Office for renminbi? You might want to pack a spare power bank instead. China is becoming a cashless society, thanks to the phenomenal rise of digital wallets Alipay and WeChat Pay linked to Chinese bank cards.

Hardly a week goes by without an account emerging somewhere online of a Chinese taxi driver / noodle vendor / street artist / landlord accepting payments through the phone. It’s ubiquitous. A Shanghai friend tells me no one carries cash in her city anymore, and even her granny is a convert. There’s also a “Cashless Day” on 8 August to perhaps convince remaining luddites, though quite what’s in store for that is anyone’s guess (bonfires of paper currency?). 

The numbers are eye-watering, as you might expect of the world’s most populous nation. WeChat Pay, the payment wallet inside the WeChat app, is used by 600 million people (equivalent to 10 United Kingdoms). Alipay is just behind with more than 450 million users.

Considering that many of us in 2017 are still scribbling in chequebooks, and digging out coins from the back of the sofa (although there are signs of change – no pun intended), China’s advances are impressive.

It also means that if you’re looking to visit China’s big cities, or selling goods and services to people, it’s best to keep in mind their preference for mobile.

In the UK, high-street shops have been catering for Chinese visitors for some time, with the likes of Selfridges, Holland & Barrett, The Body Shop and Harrods all accepting Alipay in their stores.

Tourism organisations are also getting in the act: in July, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo joined WeChat Pay as part of its goal to offer online ticketing for Chinese visitors, and later take the military showcase to China in 2020.

If you’re a running an online store, meanwhile, selling afternoon tea products (and why not – they’re in demand in China!), you might want to consider the online payments platform provided by Stripe.

The fintech startup recently announced a deal to help online retailers worldwide sell more easily to people in China. Users may reportedly now activate Alipay and WeChat Pay on their dashboard and accept payments from either system.

Amidst much talk about  the “Belt and Road” initiative – or a new Silk Road forged across land and sea – it seems as if the biggest trade routes between China and the rest of the world are being developed through mobile technology, something we can all relate to.

Ringy001 removes language confusion for expats in China

Shanghai

In my last post, I wrote of Pilot, a new device from Waverly Labs that would allow the wearer to receive an instant translation of a foreign voice in their ear. At the time of writing, Chinese (in any form), was not included among translatable languages.

But there is another way for those who need Mandarin or Cantonese translated while in China, and it’s an eminently sensible one. It’s the old way – simply asking someone – brought to the 21st century through WeChat, China’s current digital obsession.

While living in China, I often struggled with the language. I have more than one story of sheer linguistic frustration, from being stuck in a cab outside Suzhou and making choo-choo sounds to the driver, to having to deal with someone from a utility company knocking on my door at around 7am on a Saturday morning.

The only solution, I found, was to call a very understanding friend – rather like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And so, my friend very patiently spoke to the taxi driver / utility lady / handyman, and kindly translated my washing machine for me.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only foreigner doing it this way. A young speaker I met last month at a WeChat conference in Hong Kong, Swan Huang, told that me she started her business Ringy001 as a result of expats asking her for urgent translation support.

Through finding and following “Ringy001” on WeChat – the most comprehensive and sophisticated messaging app in the world, that does everything apart from make toast – non Chinese-speakers can request a free translation or instant communication from a native speaker, by sending a message.

Of course, there is a better solution still: learn the lingo. If you have any intention of moving to China and staying in China, do the right thing and take language and cultural orientation classes. An app can only take you so far.