Laowai Life: The Pros & Cons of Chinese Tech

Our smartphones are so much more than just phones. With a tap of your screen, you can call a taxi, order cheap takeout, shop for anything you want, make payments, and so much more.

“China has included technology in most parts of my daily life,” says Kai from the United States. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a life in China without the convenience of apps like WeChat, DiDi, Ele.me, and Dianping.

China’s rapid technological development is stunning. Even with a population of 1.4 billion, the Internet and universal apps like WeChat seem to have reached every corner of the country. “Everyone here uses technology,” says Amy from England. “But at home, old people are a lot more reluctant to use tech. My grandma actually once moaned that the WiFi light kept her awake at night, so my dad had to get rid of it.”

Sometimes, we might even feel like our home countries are falling behind on efficiency. Agathe, from France, believes that payment is much more efficient in China. “The payment in France is still very basic—people mainly use cash or bank cards,” she says. “Payment checks are also used between family members or companies and employees, usually to pay bills. Apple Pay is also developing, but very slowly, in only a few shops.”

To find out more about everyday efficiency, we asked a few expats living in China about what technologies they would bring back to their home country if they could.

“I’d bring back any Xiaomi products,” Amy from England told us. “They’re pretty affordable and just as good as more expensive Western brands.” Xiaomi might be China’s best-kept secret—from phones and tablets to power banks and home goods, they offer a range of products that bridge technology and lifestyle.

“If I had to choose an app to bring back, I’d 1000000% choose Dianping/Ele.me,” Amy continues. “Takeout is so expensive at home, but here, it is ridiculously cheap—often cheaper than actually going out to eat.” Due to Ele.me’s competitive market, vendors are always offering discounts and deals to attract potential customers. Kai from the USA agrees: “If I could bring back any app, it would probably be Ele.me. Cheap food delivered quickly is something we don’t have in Oregon.” Agathe also sees a lack of cheap takeout in France: “Food delivery is more expensive [in France] than in China, especially the delivery fee, which may prevent people from using this service.”

Agathe’s app of choice is WeChat. “I’d like to bring back WeChat for the diversity of things we can do with it,” she says. “It is very convenient for sending files, as well as discussion at work and in personal life. However, I’d also bring back the shared bikes with QR codes,” she adds, referring to apps like Mobike and HelloBike. “I wish I could book a gym class via WeChat one hour in advance back in France,” Agathe muses.

The level of convenience in China is unseen anywhere else in the world. But this growing hyper-efficient lifestyle has its downsides. “The biggest downside is probably that most apps obviously use and sell your data,” Amy says. “Although I guess most online companies are doing that now.”

For Kai, the downside is an effect he’s seen sweeping across Chinese society. “People are less engaged with reality. Younger people seem to have an incessant need to stay connected with their friends through IM or online games. Shanghai is a city with millions of people, and when everyone is tuned into their phones everything moves slower.” Agathe agrees that perhaps technology is a bit too ingrained in our lives. “WeChat’s main downside for me is that there is no more limit between  one’s personal life and work life.” Receiving texts from both your boss and your friends can upset your work-life balance, instead contributing to a more stressful and distracting lifestyle.

Pros and cons aside, there’s no doubt that we’re becoming more and more reliant on an array of apps and gadgets to live in China. Whether this shift towards a smartphone-dominated lifestyle is for better or worse remains to be seen, but for now, the convenience of technology seems to be worth it. Agathe sums it up: “Even though all these apps are time-consuming, at least they make life easier.”