The ultimate guide to China's apps beyond the Great Firewall
Imagine a world without Facebook and WhatsApp.
Zoey is CNET's Asia News Reporter based in Singapore. She prefers variety to monotony and owns an Android mobile device, a Windows PC and Apple's MacBook Pro all at the same time. Outside of the office, she can be found binging on Korean variety shows, if not chilling out with a book at a café recommended by a friend.
Almost a fifth of the world's population lives in China. But because of the country's so-called Great Firewall of censorship, its 772 million internet users can't use the world's most popular apps -- they're restricted to locally developed versions instead.
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 be worth $500 billion. Dubbed a "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 Jump. It's a mishmash of Facebook-owned apps -- Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp -- and has more than a billion users.
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.
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.
Other popular streaming platforms you can check out include Tencent Video and iQiyi, which is a bit like Netflix.
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.
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
. 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.
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 two years running.
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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