It’s a familiar story for students or businessmen on their first-ever visit to China. After rounds of beer and baijiu with potential clients, or a karaoke gathering through a university exchange program, the foreigner will ask the Chinese person sitting next to her for his email address.
The Chinese person will smile blankly, somewhat confused. He’ll offer her a phone number, along with a WeChat account. But the visitor doesn’t use WeChat, the messaging tool from tech giant Tencent that is China’s dominant mode of communication. Her Chinese friend doesn’t use Facebook, her main way of staying touch. Email’s a good compromise, she’ll insist.
The Chinese person will take a few seconds to remember his email address. He’ll then scribble down a jumble of numbers, maybe with a single letter— email@example.com. The foreigner will be puzzled as to why this person has such a strange email account name. And she’ll also be puzzled when emails to her new acquaintance go unreplied.
In many parts of the world, email remains deathless—a relic of the desktop-era internet, before mobile and social media were on the landscape. It’s a convention: You can’t not have an email address.
In China however, email never reached the ubiquity it has in other countries. Most Chinese consumers, if they have an email address, seldom use it. Chat, instead, remains the preferred method of communication–between friends, families, colleagues, business partners, and even strangers.
When asked why, most Chinese or expats will simply point to WeChat. With nearly 900 million monthly users, it’s the chat app of choice in China, where it also maintains a chokehold on online publishing and mobile payments.
But WeChat’s present-day popularity only tells part of the story. Several factors dating back to the early 2000s caused chat, not email, to become the default language of China’s internet—and Tencent won big by foreseeing that.
In the US and other parts of the world, as the web was just emerging into mainstream use in the late 1990s, PCs were relatively abundant. In 1999 there were 50.5 computers for every 100 people, according to the World Bank. Most first-time internet users were working adults or college students about to join the work world. Email became a primary mode of communication in the office. And as desktop PCs began to move from the office to households and schools, parents and teachers were well-placed to teach younger people how to use the internet. Step one: set up an email account.
In China, however, the situation was much different—there were only 1.2 computers per 100 people. Outside of China’s major cities, most ordinary households did not own a computer, much less one connected to the internet. In crowded dormitories, there wasn’t much space for students to cram in a desktop PC. And China’s white-collar population was far smaller proportionally than that of the US, giving office culture less sway over the broader internet culture.
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