It’s a Mobile App Life (in China)

Audrey An ·

This week I returned from a 2-week trip through 4 cities in China. I was born there, spent a fair amount of time there growing up, and I also lived there for a year on a Fulbright fellowship after college. Today, I work as in San Francisco at Carbon Five as a product manager, helping startups and tech companies turn their ideas into software.

Although the purpose of this trip was family-based, and though I’ve been there before, seeing China’s adoption of mobile technology completely blew my mind. The growing differences between U.S. and China mobile applications made my stay pretty difficult in ways I hadn’t experienced or expected. While I missed my American apps, the sophistication of extremely powerful Chinese apps also took me by surprise, with just a handful of many-featured, multi-purpose apps dominating my usage.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

Blocked Apps

Some of the apps that – straight up –  will not work:

  • Facebook (blocked by the government for not censoring content and providing access to user data after the 2009 Xinjiang riots)
  • Instagram
  • All things Google (including web browsing, gmail, drive and google maps)

What do I mean by not working? It’s not like you’ll see a notification like this:


It’ll look more like this:


Never have I ever upgraded so many Apple native apps out of my Appleware folder as I had to in China. But let’s move on to the good.

There Are 6 Apps You’ll Want To Use To Ease Your Trip

1. Uber

Getting around in Beijing and other taxi-scarce major cities can be pretty difficult. The biggest benefit of Uber in China is that it’s the same app, same account, same credit card on file as in the States. It works in virtually all the biggest cities. As for all the apps on this list, it helps if you store a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, and also if you list a domestic Chinese cell phone number so drivers can contact you.

2. Didi


The Chinese version of Uber is actually 2 separate apps for now (Kuaide Dache and Didi Chuxing), possibly merging soon as their parent companies recently merged. Didi is so common that you’ll hear it blaring from the phones of almost all drivers in the big cities, and hotels also use this app to call for taxis. Note that you do need a Chinese cell phone number to use both apps. This is well worth it though – they far outnumber Uber cars & support more cities.

3. Baidu Maps

If you can read/write a little bit of Chinese, you’ll want a local mapping app. Let’s say you’re looking for your hotel, or have to tell your cab driver a street location, and the pinyin spelling in Apple Maps just won’t cut it. Baidu is fast (you’ll be waiting for Google Maps until the end of time, so I guess everything is fast compared to that), accurate, and their places database is pretty rich.

4. WeChat

Don’t dismiss this as just another messaging app. Though it is a social network, it’s also a wallet, peer-to-peer payment tool, and e-commerce platform. Some of the lesser-know chat-related features:

  • Add someone’s contact info by scanning their personal QR code or sharing your personal QR code
  • Video conferencing
  • Group chat
  • Sending voice texts
  • Friend radar and walkie-talkie
  • Sending a friend a restaurant’s Dianping page so they know where to meet you

If you hook up your bank card and live in one of the supported cities, you can also:

  • Pay at a restaurant by scanning the restaurant’s QR code
  • Send money to your friends
  • Top up your Chinese cell phone plan
  • Order groceries for delivery
  • Call for a Didi taxi
  • Book a doctor appointment
  • Pay electricity bills
  • Buy bus, train, or ferry tickets
  • Apply for visas (for Chinese nationals)
  • Pay traffic fines
  • Access traffic cameras
  • Contact the police
  • Monitor air quality

If that isn’t crazy enough, there’s also WeChat’s Voiceprint, which uses voice recognition to log you in. WeChat is so popular & feature rich now that there are dev shops who build apps specifically for WeChat. But the appeal of WeChat isn’t straightforward. High on the creepiness factor are features like People Nearby (on by default upon download) and stories in the Chinese media about crimes related to WeChat’s location-tracking features (just change your location twice to triangulate your target’s location). Plus, there’s the in-app censorship, possibility of government access to your conversations and (hypothetical) access to other data on your device as well.

5. Dianping

How to describe Dianping? (Its full name is Da Zhong Dianping, “Mass Judgement”) It’s like Yelp, Groupon, StyleSeat, OpenTable, Amazon Merchant, Maps, and TripAdvisor all at once.


But, it also has a ton of other random stuff:

  • Day trips (want something historical? Scenic? Local excursion vendors offer online booking)
  • Beauty/wellness services (book manicures, massages, facials; find local gyms; the list goes on)
  • Find a nanny
  • Find a housekeeper
  • See flash sales and other promotions
  • Compare & book hotels
  • Manage your Dianping Merchant account
  • See what your friends have bookmarked/ checked into

Dianping recently raised $3.3 billion, proving that no matter how many engineers you have, you will never have enough.


If you’re an American city dweller who’s addicted to DoorDash or Seamless, you might want to order food in China as well. There are several, and (“Hungry?”) is the most common across China’s major cities. Though there aren’t always pictures of the dishes, the prices are pretty reasonable, though a Chinese cell phone number is required.

Remind you of any other apps?

To wrap up, using your smartphone in China mirrors life in China itself: powerful tools seemingly available overnight, the government’s mostly invisible presence occasionally asserting itself and graying out your screen, a sense that things here move quickly, but people aren’t really all that different. That said, the sheer amount of Chinese swiss-army knife product strategy and rapid fire development seems to run counter to San Francisco’s lean-startup, validated-learnings, MVP-centric ethos. Next installment, I’ll explore this difference in product strategy. And, if you’re an entrepreneur eager to take your product to the Chinese marketplace, I’ll talk about some insights and observations  you should think about.

**A Note on Data

If you’re going to be in China for anything longer than a few days, you’ll probably need more network access than the hotel wifi. Though there is public wifi in areas (airports, Starbucks, etc) those generally require a Chinese cellphone number in order to register. The cheapest way by far to consume data in China is to buy a new phone number, though be warned that as of a few years ago, you’ll need a passport to get one, meaning the Chinese government will be seeing all your uniquely-identifiable mobile internet activity.