Almost a fifth of the world's population lives in China. But because of the country's so-calledof censorship, its can't use the world's most popular apps -- they're restricted to locally developed versions instead.
Apps by FAANG companies -- Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google -- either are blocked or feature minimal services in the mainland. Apple, for instance, must remove apps deemed illegal by the ruling party, such as , from its China App Store. It must operate its China iCloud service from within the country, now China Telecom.
On my recent trip to Shenzhen, China's tech hub, I downloaded several apps to navigate the world and the web. Here's what I found -- consider it a handy guide should you make a trip. And if there's something you feel we've missed, add your thoughts in the comments below.
WeChat: A mishmash of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp
The app, which began as a social messaging platform, is the brainchild of Tencent, Asia's first tech company to super app," it lets you chat with your friends, see what they're doing through the Moments feature (similar to a Facebook wall), make purchases with digital wallet WeChat Pay or play mini games including . It's a mishmash of Facebook-owned apps -- Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp -- and has more than a billion users.. Dubbed a "
Note: You'll want to be careful about what you say on WeChat -- or any Chinese app for that matter. The state is notorious for its prying eyes, with people landing in jail for what they've written in personal chat groups. To stay in the government's good books, WeChat uses self-censorship, removing posts that are illegal under local regulations.
Ditch tweets for Weibo posts
Weibo is my favorite place for insight into what people in China think.
The microblogging service is essentially China's version of Twitter. The topics are mostly China-specific, like local college examinations (gaokao), mass relocations at college dorms, or more serious matters such as the reason satellite and China President Xi Jinping's of the two-term presidential limit.
International talking points hit people's radars too, including the American wearing a Chinese traditional costume to her prom., the , and an
Weibo also uses self-censorship (itafter users compared the tubby bear with the Chinese president), but that hasn't always protected it from .
Boomerang? Douyin's the way to go
Lip syncs, the latest dance crazes and beauty transformation videos make up just some of the addictive content. People are so hooked that despite local authorities' criticism of lowbrow content, Douyin became the most downloaded iPhone app in the first three months of this year. It has 500 million monthly active users worldwide today.
Youku is cooler than YouTube
Before Douyin, there was Youku ("ku" in Chinese means "cool"), commonly seen as China's version of YouTube -- which, by the way, you can't access in China.
It's awesome because so much of its content comes with Mandarin Chinese subtitles. That's how I picked up Cantonese and some Korean. Unlike YouTube, though, ads run for about a minute if you're a nonmember, so grab your popcorn and a drink before settling down to binge your favorite shows.
Didi you know Uber was bought out in China?
You're probably used to Ubers prowling the streets and turning up at your doorstep. But that's not going to work in China.
Didi Chuxing bought the ride-sharing company's China operation . And Uber hasn't quit just China. You won't find it in either, so if you're traveling to that region, get another ride-hailer, such as Grab. (Didi is also available in Australia, Brazil and Mexico.)
Pro tip: Keep the Didi app on your phone. Mine ran out of space during my visit to Shenzhen and I had to get the concierge to call a Didi to my hotel.
Most of Google's services don't work. Baidu's do
If you're used to searching Google for recommended restaurants nearby while traveling in a foreign land, I have bad news for you: Just about all Google services won't work in China.
Yes, that includes Google search, Gmail and Google Maps. A good alternative is Baidu. Its homepage and Maps work in a similar way to Google Maps, letting you look at photos and read reviews of places, or hunt for hotels and good food nearby.
Google still wants to crack China's digital space: Google Translate, for example, does work in the country -- and it's . The search giant also that lets players draw and guess songs on WeChat.
Taobao's got deals like eBay
If you haven't heard of Taobao, it's the online shopping platform owned by Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba. It's appeared on the US trade representative's list of markets notorious for counterfeit goods for .
China has long had a virtually nothing you can't buy on Taobao, including boyfriends for hire, , and bottled fresh air. (That's not as weird as it sounds -- Beijing is notorious for its polluted air.)-- the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said more than half of the world's counterfeits stem from there -- but you can snag tons of good deals from the platform if you know what to look out for. There's
Items get a lot cheaper on Singles Day, which falls on Nov. 11 every year. Alibaba popularized this Chinese event as a 24-hour shopping bonanza that dwarfs international equivalents such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, raking in last year.
Pay with AliPay or WeChat Pay
There's no denying China's status as a truly mobile-centric nation. Whether it's ordering a meal or buying groceries, you can get by in China with just your phone. I was worried my Didi driver wouldn't accept cash payment, but thankfully he did.
When in China, remember to do as the Chinese do -- unless you're prepared to live without internet access for the length of your stay in the country. So if China's next on your travel list, make space on your phone and let the downloads begin.
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