Chinese Smartphone Culture: Bicycles, TV Shows, and Wechat

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After witnessing 3 different people simultaneously cycling while on their phones during my commute today, I felt compelled to write about China’s obsession with the smart phone. These people weren’t simply making a call – they were either instant messaging or watching a TV show, therefore completely unaware of their surroundings. The helmet craze that I was hoping to create also hasn’t caught on, but rather than ranting about the appalling (lack of) road safety, I’ll stick to technology.

China’s obsession with the smart phone is like no other. Since 2011 China has been the world’s largest smartphone market, and although research says the market may be slowing down, the prevalence of smart phones certainly isn’t. Some estimates have placed China’s smartphone market at nearly 520 million users, a number larger than the entire population of the United States. Of these 520 million, the phone of choice has become the iPhone, (in April, Apple reported a 71% year-over-year increase in revenue from iPhone sales in China) followed by China-based companies such as Xiaomi and Huawei. Samsung and Lenovo however, have begun to struggle and as the market matures, the general trend with smart phones in China seems to be the bigger and more high-tech the better, evidenced by Apple’s iPhone 5C flopping relative to the more expensive and shiny iPhone 5S. What has surprised me the most is that the expensive phones are not limited to the rising middle-class but are also used by the street-vendors and shop assistants in the most unassuming areas. In China, your smartphones is a part of your identity, so it seems to pay to invest.

On a personal level, we live through this craze every day. iPhones dominate the subway, the streets and even the schools. It’s social suicide in China not to have a smart phone, partly in thanks to the prevalence of Wechat, an instant messaging communication service with 438 million active users. Connecting with/adding someone on Wechat is casual, and often leads to nothing more than less storage space on your iPhone, but is an essential part of greeting someone for the first time. Our teachers contact us through Wechat, and it’s 麻烦 (a massive pain) for them to have to impart information about classes and homework through a different medium for our phone-less North Korean classmates. It’s a little strange coming from a formal university in which the only student-teacher communication is through email, but it is effective in ensuring a dialogue (even if receiving a reminder about homework at 21:30 is horrible).

Due to Beijing’s size, millions of people commute long distances every day, and playing games/watching TV shows on a phone seem to be the distraction of choice to pass the time. There is always that one person who plays it out loud with no headphones, and if you’re the one watching something, there’s always that person who watches from an uncomfortably close distance over your shoulder. As a sweeping generalization, 外国人 (foreigners) walk much faster and with much more urgency than the locals (it’s been remarked upon by many bemused commuters as I’ve power-walked by) and this leads to my immense frustration when stuck behind a barely moving person glued to their phone screen. This is obviously my problem rather than theirs (maybe I should just chill and slow down a little) but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to adapt to this particular characteristic!

The crazy smartphone culture has done me well – it’s great to know that whomever you’re contacting on Wechat is socially obliged to reply within 10 seconds of receiving the message – but it’s also a very tiring and foreign concept to be held to such strict replying accountability. iPhone Syndrome (in which people think their phone is vibrating when it isn’t) is being diagnosed by doctors across China and Taiwan, so I think a phone detox will be in store when I return to the UK in a few weeks!

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