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Willem Evers is an exchange student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He shares his experiences to encourage people to study abroad and broaden their horizon.

I can’t go 15 minutes without my phone since living in China. Back home I worked on an app that lets its users decrease screen time and develop healthier smartphone habits. But in China it’s just not realistic to leave your home without your phone in your pocket. I do everything on my phone: order groceries, order food in a restaurant, split bills, pay rent, and take the metro.

Let’s talk numbers. My screen time has gone up from two hours to 3.5 hours a day, but that’s nothing compared to Chinese people who average six hours a day. The Chinese generate 10 times more data than American smartphone users. China’s mobile payment market is 41 times bigger than that of the US. This huge market is divided between a few giant companies such as mammoths like Alibaba and Tencent, which offer almost any online service you can think of.

Let’s take Alibaba as an example. I have my money in Alipay, which allows me to book flights, get a shared bicycle and charge my student card at Jiao Tong University, all within the same app.  Whatever I can’t find in the Alipay app, I order online at Taobao, another Alibaba company. I do my groceries via Tmall, you guessed it, also an Alibaba subsidiary. I can do almost everything without having to leave the Alibaba ecosystem.

Everything works very fast, frictionless and cheap

Alibaba can thus form a very detailed data profile in order to serve me even better. This creates a feedback loop that allows it to develop new services and thrive on existing ones. Furthermore, the Alibaba apps serve as a platform for other companies to offer their services (imagine ordering your Picnic groceries via WhatsApp). This strategy is very different from the default Western strategy, where common wisdom prescribes a very strong focus on doing just one thing.

For me as a user, this ecosystem is awesome. Everything works very fast, frictionless and cheap. However, this situation does give companies such as Alibaba, and the Chinese government, a lot of control over what I do on a daily basis. But do I really care? Looking at my fresh groceries delivered while writing this article, I think ease of use wins over privacy concerns. Having experienced a few Chinese apps first-hand, I can say that some of them are miles ahead of their European and American counterparts.

So will we all be using Chinese apps in the Netherlands in a couple of years? We just might be using some Chinese apps. Most apps are international anyway, and Alibaba might be more trustworthy than Facebook, for example.

But the great extent of government involvement might scare off European users and policy makers in particular. Also, I think a lot of Chinese apps won’t succeed in the Netherlands yet because we are less used to paying everything via our phones and a delivery guy on a scooter is just way more expensive than in China. Another hurdle for Chinese apps is the fact that UX design is generally very different in the EU, so they can’t simply copy what works in China.

It is exciting to see how Western companies will deal with this challenge, and as a consumer I welcome the absolute ease of the Chinese digital business model and payment system. Hopefully, these new apps will be developed in the EU, but we might have to start looking East for some inspiration.

 

Read the prior episode of this blog here:

Guanxi: How to enjoy an exchange in China

 

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