App of the year: Health code

Who’d have thought the app of apps, the one that defines 2020 in China would be web-based? Now in most Chinese cities, QR code-scan checkpoints are at the entrances of just about everywhere you go. There’s no getting through an ordinary day in China without filling in your information and travel history to get a green code.

Alibaba pioneered the health code idea and implemented it in Hangzhou—where its headquarters is based—on Feb. 11. Luckily, based on TechNode’s findings, it seems like the health code system won’t collect more information than what Facebook can get from you. The new normal is quite easy, with only an extra scan.

Communicate: Wechat

There’s a million reasons to hate Wechat: it limits your individual conversations and its group chat system is a mess, the Moments news feed is full of braggarts and fake news. Worst of all, since everyone uses it to chat with both friends and colleagues, it upsets the work-life balance. And don’t forget how it “helps” at work, like when it removes the shared file you want after just a few days without notice, or when you accidentally nudge your boss in a work group. Yet it’s still the number one app you need in China.

If you are a minimalist, there’s only one app for a fulfilled China life. This is it.

English support: Yes

Download: App Store, Google Play

Pay for stuff: Alipay / Wechat Pay (via WeChat)


Alipay advert on Tottenham Court Road tube platform (Image Credit: Ged Carroll)

To many expats, Alipay is Paypal on steroids. Most importantly, it’s the key to Taobao, China’s dominant online marketplace.

Traditionally, Alipay has required a local bank account. But last year, the platform opened to tourists in a Tour Pass program, which allows short-term visitors to register a prepaid card service and make cashless payments in Chinese yuan. However, the pass has some restrictions, like a required minimum and mandated maximum top-up amount.

Wechat also announced a partnership with Visa to deploy international card support to Wechat Pay one day after Alipay Tour Pass’s launch.

English support: Partial

Download: App Store, Google Play

Buy anything you could want: Taobao / JD.com / Pinduoduo

In terms of getting what you want, Taobao is the first place most people look. Even the Chinese professional basketball league bought their MVP trophy via Taobao.

JD.com is best known for its fast, reliable shipping and guaranteed authentic goods. Thanks to their in-house delivery network, JD Logistics, an order placed by 11:00 a.m. can be fulfilled the same day in most big Chinese cities.

A bargain-hunter’s paradise, Pinduoduo targets tier-two and -three cities and rural areas within China with affordable unbranded and white label goods using a disruptive social e-commerce business model. Despite its reputation as a counterfeit mall, Pinduoduo has somehow managed to become the “Apple MSRP killer”—every time Apple releases new products, Pinduoduo lists them with a discount. Last year, Pinduoduo chairman and founder Huang Zheng told the press that it sold “over 400,000 latest iPhone models” during the first 11 days of November 2019.

English support: No

Download: App Store (Taobao, JD, Pinduoduo), Google Play (Taobao, JD)

Get food (meals or groceries): Eleme / Meituan / Freshippo / JD Daojia

During the pandemic, local delivery services have become even more essential. Alibaba-controlled Eleme and Tencent-backed Meituan are two of the biggest service platforms which help users—from buying groceries to restaurant meal deliveries.

The grocery leaders are Freshippo, Alibaba’s supermarket brand, and JD’s Daojia. Freshippo, known as Hema in China, offers quality goods sent directly from its brick-and-mortar grocery stores without shipping fees (capped at one order per day). Daojia brought conventional supermarkets and local vegetable markets online, and linked them with a crowdsourced low-cost delivery network.

Back in 2018, Freshippo changed the game entirely, allowing flexible shopping options from mobile ordering and cashless self-checkout to home deliveries or in-person dining.

English support: No

Download: App Store (Eleme, Meituan, Freshippo, JD Daojia), Google Play (Meituan)

Watch videos: Douyin / Bilibili / Kuaishou / Tencent Video / Iqiyi / Youku

Over the last few years, Douyin has become one of China’s most influential social networks, with loyal fans ranging from college students to the elderly (like my mom). Tiktok’s domestic version, Douyin offers you a window into Chinese people’s lives, and a chance to see propaganda developing from street banners to viral dance moves and rap songs.

https://aweme.snssdk.com/aweme/v1/playwm/?video_id=v0200f1e0000bnb4c88m4ciq1tl7rpfg&ratio=720p&line=0
A rap song disputing the merits of democracy gained 476,000 likes on the People’s Daily’s official Douyin account (Video Credit: People’s Daily)

Bilibili was originally known for its anime, comics, and game (ACG) content, but it has expanded widely into more mainstream offerings. Now the video platform has reached 172 million monthly active users (MAUs) and an average daily time spent of 87 minutes per user.

Kuaishou is also a short video service with a large user base outside of China’s tier-one cities. On it users can find lots of Jackass-style content generally associated with rural dwellers similar to the now famous alcohol-chugging Hebei Pangzai.

Iqiyi, Youku, and Tencent Video are China’s three big video-on-demand platforms. These are where fans of Chinese-made TV series go to watch their dramas. Spoiler alert: the “Game of Thrones” finale is still being transferred to Tencent Video’s servers.

English support: No

Download: App Store (Douyin, Bilibili, Kuaishou, Tencent Video, Iqiyi, Youku), Google Play (Bilibili, Tencent Video, Iqiyi, Youku)

Listen to music: Xiami / QQ Music / Netease Music

Some say that your taste in music reveals your personality—and in China, so does your taste in music-streaming apps. China’s indie music fans prefer Netease Music, while QQ Music pleases the mainstream as it offers the biggest licensed library compared with its competitors. In between lies Alibaba’s Xiami, which once referred to a free premium trial offer as a promotion for “beggars,” sparking a netizen backlash.

One drawback of Chinese music apps: you may find some iconic musicians missing from your local music app’s search results, perhaps because of politics, or simply because they sport too many tattoos. But the good news is that Apple Music and Spotify Premium are both accessible in China.

Chinese rock musician Cui Jian’s third album is cut from eight (right, local storage) to five songs across China’s music apps (left, QQ music) (Image credit: TechNode)

English support: No

Download: App Store (QQ Music, Xiami, Netease), no Google Play links—look on Chinese Android app stores

Call a car: Didi / Amap

In China, ride-hailing and mapping services are all following the same GPS route. Alibaba’s Amap is an aggregator which hails cars through six ride-hailing services (including industry giant Didi, and it will soon include robotaxi services) and offers a price comparison function. The Uber-like Didi has been expanding its product line so you can now rent a car, find a gas station, and get turn-by-turn directions without leaving the app.

Services offered on the Didi app as of July 2020. (Image credit: TechNode)

English support: Amap (no), Didi (partial)

Download: App Store (Didi, Amap), Google Play (Didi, Amap)

Rent a bike: Didi / Hellobike (via Alipay, Amap) / Meituan

Didi-branded bikes in Chengdu (Image Credit: Didi Chuxing)

If you visited China a few years ago, you have probably noticed the colors of Chinese rental bikes have changed. What’s also changed are the apps that unlock those bikes. The Wechat-opens-all era is long gone. You need at least three apps in order to unlock all the major bikes: Wechat or Didi for the turquoise Didi bike; Meituan for the yellow; and Alipay for the blue.

Hellobike (Image Credit: Hellobike)

Although Mobike once was one of Wechat’s most used mini-programs with 40 million monthly active users, this mini app was pulled after Meituan’s acquisition of the company.

Meituan Bike (Image Credit: Meituan)

English support: No

Download: App Store (Didi, Alipay, Meituan), Google Play (Didi, Alipay, Meituan)

Find your way: Amap / Baidu Maps / Apple Maps

In China, Google Maps doesn’t work because the app is blocked by the Great Firewall along with other Google apps, and also because its Chinese street maps are outdated by three to four years. This gets you nowhere in a country that changes at the blink of an eye.

Beijing Subway Line 16 has been in operation since October 2016, but isn’t shown on Google maps as of July 2020. (Image credit: TechNode/Wang Boyuan)

Alibaba’s Amap and Baidu Maps are the two biggest players in China’s map service sector, both featuring a clean interface and handy functions such as real‑time transit information and street views.

For English users, though, Apple Maps is a better choice—it is basically an English version of Amap.

English support: No

Download: App Store (Amap, Baidu Maps), Google Play (Amap, Baidu Maps)

Find new restaurants: Dazhong Dianping / Koubei (via Alipay)

Yelp is not available in China, but Meituan’s Dazhong Dianping and Alibaba’s Koubei are. Both apps help users find restaurants, businesses, and services based on your location. Established in 2003, Dianping has built a massive database on your surroundings; Koubei has been catching up since Alibaba and Ant in 2015 poured nearly $1 billion into this startup to tap China’s local services market.

Both apps are in Chinese only, but English users can use Apple Maps to access Dianping’s data, thanks to a collaboration in place since 2015.

Apple Maps’ local service is basicaly a translated version of Dianping. (Image credit: TechNode)

English support: No

Download: App Store (Dianping, Alipay), Google Play (Dianping, Alipay)

Being understood: Pleco / Baidu Translate / Youdao Translator / DeepL

The beloved Pleco aside, China’s own translation services have exploded in recent years. Baidu, Netease’s Youdao, and Iflytek have all significantly improved translation quality, and European DeepL has also made a major breakthrough in context interpretations, making it easier to understand one another’s languages now. (Avoid WeChat’s in-app translation.)

Download: App Store (Pleco, Baidu Translate, Youdao Translator), Google Play (Pleco, Youdao Translator), Web (DeepL)

Wang Boyuan

Blogger and translator.