Reader, we’re going a little meta this week. Way back in 2017, in TechNode’s bloggier days, the site published a listicle called “Top 15 apps you need for living in China.” This piece became one of our best-performing posts of all time. Three years on, people are still reading it.

So we decided to update the list for 2020, to reflect on how phone home screens have changed — and what it says about the market.

Bottom line: The majority of the list remains the same. 18 out of 22 apps mentioned in 2017 kept their position in 2020. But we’ve added 21 new apps that gained popularity over the three years. The market is still pretty dynamic.

Remember Apple’s iPhone 3G commercial “there’s an app for that”? That slogan never really applied to China. Here, all your needs are packed into a few super-apps—basically, Wechat and Alipay. Wechat accounts for 34% of total mobile data traffic in China in 2018, while Ali­pay leads the Chi­nese mo­bile pay­ments market with a 53.8% share as of Q4 2019.

However, other sectors, like entertainment or transportation, still see vital competitions, innovation, and growth today. One new category — short video — has gone big.

The list: Without further ado, here’s our updated list of the top apps you need for living in China — with the new additions in bold. We’ll post an updated version of the old article to the site this week, with more details about the apps.

  1. App of the year: Health code
  2. Communication: Wechat
  3. Paying for stuff: Alipay / Wechat Pay (via Wechat)
  4. Buying anything you could possibly want: Taobao / JD / Pinduoduo
  5. Get around: Health code (via Wechat / Alipay)
  6. Get food (meals, or groceries): Ele.me / Baidu Waimai / Meituan / Hema / JD Daojia
  7. Watching TV videos: Douyin / Bilibili / Tencent Video / Iqiyi / Youku
  8. Calling a car: DiDi / Amap
  9. Renting a bike: Mobike / Ofo / Didi / Hellobike (via Alipay, Amap) / Meituan
  10. Finding your way: Amap / Baidu Maps / Apple Maps
  11. Finding new restaurants: Dazhong Dianping / Koubei
  12. Finding a home: Ziroom / 58.com
  13. Listening to music: Xiami / QQ Music / Netease Music
  14. Dating: Tantan / Soul
  15. Being understood: Pleco / Baidu Translate / Xunfei Translate / Deepl
  16. Travelling: Ctrip / Qunar / Fliggy
  17. Finding events: Huodongxing / Gewara / ShowStart / Maoyan / Taopiaopiao

App of the year: Health code

A security guard checks health code outside a compound in Suzhou. (Image credit: TechNode/Shi Jiayi)

The app of the year is obvious, even though it’s not technically an app: China’s “health code” digital quarantine systems are the most essential software on your phone in China in 2020. For most users, they’re mini-apps embedded in Wechat and Alipay, and there are hundreds of versions created by different local governments.

There would have been no grand reopening without the health code system. Launched first in Hangzhou on Feb. 11, it’s become an essential part of daily life: if you want to travel, go to work, go to a market, or even enter your own housing compound, you’ve probably needed to show a code in the last few months.

At the top of the list, nothing’s changed. Wechat and Alipay are China’s mobile age infrastructure. If anything, they’re more essential than they were in 2017. Almost every QR code you see on a random Chinese street, from cashless payment badges, to health code passes, works only on the two mega apps.

  • Wechat’s still the one app that rules them all, with its monthly active users growing from 900 million (2017) to 1.2 billion (2020 Q1).
  • Despite Wechat’s overall success, there’s been no revolutionary updates in the last three years. Even mini programs, apps that run inside super apps instead of being downloaded from the app store have been around since January 2017.
  • The entry barrier for a new messaging app is sky-high — Wechat challengers like Liantianbao (formerly Bullet Messenger), Bytedance’s Duoshan, and Matong MT didn’t last, either because of weak customer stickiness or failure to meet regulatory requirements.

The two biggest apps have mostly carved out their territory, and stuck to it. Alipay once tried competing with Wechat as a social network, but it dropped this plan in 2017 and focused on inclusive finance.

  • Alipay claims 1.3 billion annual active users globally as of March 2020, including users from China, and nine international e-wallet partners from India, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
  • In 2018, Alipay recorded 197.5 billion annual transactions, according to Alipay’s official statement (in Chinese).

No more “bucket meal”: When Wechat launched mini programs in 2017, it was seen as a game changer in the Chinese app scene. But predictions that they would replace download apps haven’t quite panned out. I have never uninstalled an app because there was a mini program substitute.

Nevertheless, the idea of the mini program did change the game in other ways.

In the 2010s, Baidu was notorious for a download-one-get-all app promotion strategy. Netizens complained that once you get one Baidu app on an Android phone, it would then secretly download and install all other Baidu apps without the user’s consent. Irate users named the bundle of related apps the “Baidu family bucket meal,” after a particularly large KFC combination meal.

From Baidu to the smallest companies, the “bucket meal” strategy was everywhere, and users were cautious when downloading apps onto their smartphones. 

As of 2020, the combo meal seems to be gone, because there’s no need to inject a series of apps secretly on the phone. They’re all there already, inside one another.

  • The latest version of Alibaba’s Amap provides directions and integrates features like lifestyle services discovery (from Koubei and Dianping) and travel services (from Fliggy).
  • Didi Chuxing provides car rental, car maintenance, gas station services, and a map service in addition to its core function of ride-hailing.
  • Meituan users can call a cab, unlock a shared bike, order takeouts, buy a travel ticket, and even borrow money inside an app originally inspired by Groupon.

Short-video and live streaming are on the rise: These genres didn’t make the list in 2017. Besides Douyin, Kuaishou, and many other players, we see such feature pretty much in every popular social and e-commerce apps, from Wechat, Taobao, and Meituan, to vertical social network Baidu Tieba (a Reddit equivalent), Zhihu (the Chinese Quora), and Hupu (an online sports community). It’s getting prominent positions in these apps, too.

Iresearch, a China focused online marketing agency, predicts that by the end of 2020, China will have 524 million online live streaming users. The total scale of China’s live streaming e-commerce industry reached RMB 433.8 billion (about $62 billion) in 2019, and the figure is expected to double by the end of 2020.

The sold, and the collapsed: We removed four apps from the list.

Baidu Waimai disappears into Eleme: Launched in 2015, Baidu Waimai was one of the three takeout delivery giants in China. Unlike Ele.me and Meituan, which focused heavily on college students, Baidu Waimai started for white collar who prefer quality dining. But when the company doubled down on computing, artificial intelligence, and core technologies, it lost its taste for the highly competitive food delivery market. Sold to Ele.me in August 2017, it was rebranded as the smaller premium service Star.Ele in October 2018.

An ofo bike lies on the street in Shanghai on April 4, 2019. (Image credit: TechNode/Shi Jiayi)

Ofo’s pride, and fall: Once a poster child of Chinese innovation in the mobile age, Ofo is now remembered as a joke, or maybe a scam. The best thing you can say about them in 2020 is that some of their bikes did not end up in the bicycle graveyard, but now benefit poor communities all over the world as free bicycles.

Anyone remember Mobike? Two other apps from the 2017 list, Mobike and Gewara, were once the biggest names in shared bikes and the movie ticket booking field. Both were acquired by Meituan group in 2018. Gewara, its name inspired by communist icon Che Guevara, saw its movie ticket business merged with Maoyan, a Meituan subsidiary, after its acquisition.

Failing to monetize itself, Mobike chose to go under Meituan’s umbrella. It remained an independent brand until one year and a half after the acquisition, when the yellow Meituan Bikes began to replace the orange Mobike on the streets.This shift marked the second wave of shared bikes in China, in which the new three kingdoms, Meituan (yellow), Alibaba (blue) and Didi (turquoise) share the market in harmony. People still need bikes, but the bike companies don’t want a price war any more. With subsidies cut, fares hiked, free rides are a thing of the past.

What’s going to change by 2023? Compared to the wild old days, things look stable in 2020. The top Chinese apps seem to have grown to the too-big-to-fail stage. But looking at Douyin’s rise, we know there’s always another new killer app. And let’s not forget that apps that didn’t exist when we wrote our last top apps piece, which became a huge phenomenon in 2019, and are now all but gone — like Luckin Coffee. If you look again in 2023, I’m sure you’ll be surprised by what’s new — and maybe by what no longer exists.

Wang Boyuan

Blogger and translator.