In 2018, China is an almost entirely cashless consumer economy, where popular mobile payment apps such as WeChat Pay and Alipay have enabled consumers to go straight from cash, to smartphone payments, leapfrogging the use of credit cards and cheques.
One of the world’s leading players in mobile or e-payment, China saw $15.4 trillion worth of mobile payments handled by third-party platforms in 2017 – more than 40 times the amount processed in the US.
Chinese consumers can buy a pancake at a roadside breakfast stall, order food online, pay credit card bills, or manage stock accounts, all with just their smartphone. In fact, mobile payments are so prevalent that use of cash fell from 63% of transactions in 2011 to just 33% by 2016.
When Alibaba founder Jack Ma carved out his payments business from the ecommerce giant in 2010, he pulled off a coup with multibillion dollar implications. But it was a move by WeChat a few years later that really set the category alight.
The sending and receiving of red packets containing cash (also called lai see in Cantonese, and hongbao in Mandarin) at Lunar New Year is an important tradition across China. But historically red packets were always tangible items, real cash in a paper envelope. Then, in 2014, WeChat introduced digital red packets. The ability to send festive cash to family and friends using just the WeChat Pay mobile payment platform. It was a revolution, and 4 years later in 2018, the idea of digital red packets had caught on to such an extent, that 80% of Chinese consumers sent a red packet via WeChat. This year only 69% sent a physical red packet.
WeChat’s success with digital red packets introduced and popularised the mobile payments category with Chinese consumers, and built a platform for the adoption of wider mobile payments functionality across money transfer, taxi ordering, online shopping, bill settlement, wealth management, for both WeChat – and it’s competitors.
In fact, Alipay, owned by Alibaba, now handles nearly 54% of total mobile payment transactions, with WeChat Pay, owned by Tencent, processing around 39%. Across the category, the number of transactions made through non-banking mobile apps increased from 3.8 billion to more than 97 billion over the period 2013 to 2016, and research firm eMarketer recently estimated that more than 61% of global mobile payment users in 2018 are located in China.
Alipay and WeChat Pay have also made their presence felt abroad. Both companies extended their payments services to hundreds of thousands of merchants in regions like Southeast Asia and Europe, targeting outbound Chinese travellers and encouraging them to settle their overseas shopping bills with the apps. Adoption is still low, but merchants are keen to facilitate easier transactions for high volume and wealthy Chinese tourists.
Within China however, the game is up. The dominance of mobile payment means not only that companies like Alibaba and Tencent manage consumer financial transactions, but as a by product they also control huge lakes of valuable personal data. Already this data is being used to close the loop on the consumer purchase cycle, and up-sell other financial products such as loans, or retail experiences. Alipay has also built Sesame Credit, a personal credit rating platform and Chinese government social rating system, linked to it’s mobile payments footprint. While English language media tends to describe Sesame Credit as an authoritarian system straight out of Black Mirror, Chinese social media users seem to focus more on the advantages than the burdens.
Ay, there’s the rub! As the West agonises over Cambridge Analytica and GDPR, WeChat and Alipay have already built the future of mobile payments. Convenience trumps all, if you let it.
Below we’ve collected key takeaway resources covering WeChat, Alipay and the mobile payments ecosystem in China.
Mobile Payment Usage in China 2017
Tencent: The Growth of the Digital Payment Ecosystem in China
Social Networks & Digital Payment in China
Alipay and WeChat Pay: Reaching Rural Users in China
Digital transformation in China – Take aways from the Alibaba Global Dreamer Program