Internet users at a café in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. China now has more than 800m people going online © FT montage / Bloomberg

China has more than 800m internet users, according to government figures published earlier this week, cementing the country’s status as the world’s biggest market for tech companies — larger than the US and India combined — and enabling the birth of Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and a raft other online giants.

Of China’s 802m internet users, 788m access the web via mobile devices such as smartphones, according to the China Internet Network Information Center, a government agency.

As a result, the country generates the biggest mobile app sales in the world. According to market research company App Annie, in 2017 Chinese users spent $1 out of every $4 generated globally through app stores, in-app purchases and mobile commerce.

That means China’s mobile market remains particularly attractive for foreign tech groups, despite its stringent censorship requirements. Over the past year, Facebook and Google have launched new apps to try to re-enter the mobile market.

Google has also been developing a censored search engine to re-enter the market — a project that led to staff protests at the search company. The Silicon Valley group has been shut out of China’s app revenues because its Google Play store remains blocked in the country. Its potential revenues from breaking back in are vast: one-third of the world’s users of Google’s Android smartphone operating system are in China.

Here are four charts showing how Chinese people access the internet and what they use it for. 

A graphic with no description

Internet data in China is provided by the big three state-owned telecoms companies — China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom — meaning the government retains ultimate control over the pricing of data. This year, Beijing ordered them to slash the cost of mobile data by 30 per cent, as well as cancel data roaming charges when for users when they travel between China’s provinces.

The measures are part of a push to advance the digital economy, which the government sees as the major driver of growth. China’s traditional heavy industries are in deep decline and Beijing wants to stimulate domestic consumption of high-tech services rather than relying on export-driven manufacturing.

As mobile internet access has become ever more affordable, data-intensive services such as online music, video streaming and livestreaming have become popular forms of entertainment.

A graphic with no description

Most Chinese internet users access the web through mobile devices. Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo and Vivo, the country’s biggest smartphone companies, accounted for roughly two-thirds of domestic sales last year. Those brands are now looking to take on foreign competitors to lure high spending consumers, but it was their lower cost devices, selling for less than $100, that enabled the country’s mass take-up of smartphones.

Many consumers, especially those in rural China, leapfrogged the fixed-line era of desktop computers and went straight to surfing the internet on their phones. This phenomenon kickstarted China’s mobile payments and ecommerce revolution.

The payments infrastructure for mobile e-commerce is more developed and pervasive in China than elsewhere. That has spurred Ant Financial and Tencent, the country’s leading mobile payments providers, to seek growth in foreign markets.

A graphic with no description

Millennials dominate the Chinese internet. Three-quarters of users are under the age of 40, with a heavy concentration of 20-something consumers.

Internet companies are increasingly shifting their focus to serving the tastes of the generation born after the 1990s. Tech investors often praise Chinese customers for rapidly adopting new online consumption habits, from using their phones to unlock shared bicycles to scanning QR codes for payment. China’s millennials epitomise this behaviour.

Millennials led China’s mobile payments revolution by switching from cash to mobile wallets earlier than most, and are also taking up online financial technology services. Although Chinese households traditionally have a very high savings rate, younger consumers are more willing to take out loans online.

A graphic with no description

It may be unsurprising that instant messaging and internet search are the most popular online activities, but there are also some country-specific habits.

Chinese users spend the most time in their apps, both as a country and per capita, according to App Annie. In the last quarter of 2017, they spent 200bn hours doing it — more than 4.5 times longer than India, the next largest country.

The largest chunk of time was spent in Tencent’s WeChat, an all-in-one platform that combines social messaging, mobile payments and in-app mini-programs that are portals for shopping, gaming and more. Half of WeChat’s 750m users last year used the app for more than 90 minutes each day.

No wonder, then, that 70 per cent of mobile internet users in China make mobile payments and go shopping on their smartphones when they can do so much within one app.

Video streaming is also popular. The rise of internet video platforms has led to the fragmentation of China’s television-watching audience, which used to be concentrated in the rigidly censored state-owned television broadcasting platforms.

As many as 74 per cent of people online also watch short videos, a format spearheaded by Douyin, which allows users to upload 10-second bursts of video that have proved addictive for Chinese consumers.

Get alerts on Data visualisation when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article