Hello from the other side: the meteoric rise of mobile phones in China
Among the many hardships of living in China, one of them is particularly frightening: finding yourself with no reliable cellphone. As many of us has experienced this nightmare, we know that losing your phone in China means much more than being unable to communicate with friends, relatives, and colleagues. In fact, it also prevents you from performing essential tasks, such as sending and receiving money, buying food and other products, translating texts, paying for a subway ticket, and (after COVID-19) even entering public spaces.
But how has such a small device become an indispensable tool for surviving in the country today?
Hanging on the line: the early days of telephones in China
During the Maoist era (1949-78), telephone services available were scarcely available for Chinese people. They were still limited to elites, and mostly aimed at serving the needs of the politburo. According to Harwitt “the majority of the early telephone connections in both urban and rural settings were placed in public buildings, such as government offices or military command posts, rather than in citizens' homes.”1
Even after the Reforms and Openings in the late 1970s, the average Chinese citizen would have to wait up to two years before securing a telephone line at home. The installation fee was exorbitant, reaching over 20,000 yuan in some regions.2 As a consequence to the prioritization of economic development of urban over rural areas, from 1979 to 1995 the increase of telephones in urban China was 5 time larger than in the countryside.”3.
The mobile transition: from Dageda 大哥大 to Shanzhai 山寨 phones
However, this top-down regulations did not stop China’s telecommunication grid from growing exponentially during the 90s and 2000s. But as fixed telephony was still expanding, a new and revolutionary device started to be popularized: the mobile phone.
At first, the biggest obstacle to obtaining mobile phones was their prohibitive price, and they quickly became a symbol of status and a luxury. “In the 1990s, the colloquial term for a mobile phone—dageda “Big Brother Big” a reference to Hong Kong gangsters— reflected its status as a tool reserved for the (usually male) government and business elite, whose work unit picked up the tab for the cost of the phone and the monthly service.”4 In the first years of the mobile era Motorola was the brand dominating the market, and the devices were good-old brick phones that could do no more than send and receive calls.5
The second obstacle for purchasing mobile phones were entry regulations. At first, China imposed a series of restrictions on the licensing of mobile devices, which lead to costly and lengthy production. Foreign companies like Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung had to comply with protective laws, and were forced to form joint ventures with state-owned companies. This is how a monopoly of legalized manufacturers was first formed.6
However, the scenario started to change around 2004, when new technologies in chips production made manufacturing easier, and lowered production costs significantly.7 Thanks to this, the infamous culture of shanzhai 山寨 arose. Shanzhai are copycat mobile phones, created in rogue factories in industrial cities like Shenzhen, illegally distributed in other Chinese cities and even exported to foreign countries.8
It is this cheapening process that set the ground for the penetration of mobile phones in Chinese society. Soon SMS-oriented phones supporting pinyin took over brick phones as the most popular type of devices.9 As a consequence, mobile phones were no longer symbols of wealth, but “by the mid-2000s, peasants, factory workers, and even beggars were seen chatting on their handsets.”10
Chinese apps for the Chinese people
During the first decade of the 21st century, a new element changed the world of mobile phones forever: the integration between mobile devices and Internet access.
At first, Chinese people were skeptical about the potential of the Internet in mobile communication. While the former was seen with suspicion in terms of social interaction, the latter had a much more reliable potential for interpersonal relationships (关系 guanxi).11
However, the shanzhai phenomenon quickly expanded into the realm of smartphones, and, like it did with the first wave of mobile phones, made them incredibly popular. In 2008, Apple started manufacturing on Chinese soil, kick-starting a wave of copycat brands that imitated (and even reinvented) the iPhone, in terms of both hardware and software, despite the low quality and prices.12 This bootleg race resulted in the domestication of Chinese native smartphone brands. Soon-to-be big companies like Xiaomi, Huawei, and Oppo mushroomed during the early 2010 and, in less than a decade, they managed to overshadow the sales of their Western counterparts.13
With the first generation of Chinese tech-giants came the flourishing market of Chinese applications. Some of them, like WeChat and Alipay, not only sought to replicate but surpassed Western ones in terms of functionalities, and became indispensable for anyone living in China today
Between convenience and public health: the future of smartphones in China
The use of smartphones by the Chinese population has been continuously growing since at least 2015.14 With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this dependence has been put to test, as the reliance on smartphone-based applications has been used as the main tool to secure the tracing of surging cases in the Chinese mainland.
With the implementation of “Health codes” (健康吗jiankang ma) in WeChat and Alipay the use of smartphones has reached a new level. Health codes are commonly used to access public spaces in most Chinese cities. This phenomenon blurred the lines between personal convenience and public health concerns, rising questions around privacy and our reliance on smartphone technology.15
The consequences of this unprecedented symbiotic relationship between man and machine are yet to materialize in the future of China.
References / To Go Further
Eric Harwitt, “Spreading Telecommunications to Developing Areas in China: Telephones, the Internet and the Digital Divide”, The China Quarterly, No. 180 (Dec., 2004), 1016.
Cara Wallis, Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones (New York University Press, 2013), 54.
Eric Harwitt, “Spreading Telecommunications”, 1017.
Cara Wallis, Technomobility, 54 – 55.
Erik Crouch, “China's Mobile Revolution: 15 years in phone”, That’s Magazine, October 1, 2015, http://www.thatsmags.com/china/post/11260/china-s-mobile-revolution-15-years-in-phones.
Zhimin Liao and Xiaofang Chen, “Why the Entry Regulation of Mobile Phone Manufacturing in China Collapsed: The Impact of Technological Innovation”, The Journal of Law & Economics, vol. 54, no. 4, Markets, Firms, and Property Rights: A Celebration of the Research of Ronald Coase (November 2011), S210-S211.
Zhimin Liao and Xiaofang Chen, “Why the Entry Regulation of Mobile Phone Manufacturing in China Collapsed”, S213 – S216.
Brendon Chase, “Shanzhai ji: All you need to know about fake phones”, CNET, July 9, 2009, https://www.cnet.com/tech/mobile/shanzhai-ji-all-you-need-to-know-about-fake-phones/.
Erik Crouch, “China's Mobile Revolution: 15 years in phone”.
Zhimin Liao and Xiaofang Chen, “Why the Entry Regulation of Mobile Phone Manufacturing in China Collapsed”, S216
Leopoldina Fortunati, Anna Maria Manganelli, Pui-lam Law, and Shanhua Yang, “Beijing Calling… Mobile Communication in Contemporary China”, Know Techn Pol (2008), 22 – 23.
Brendon Chase, “Shanzhai ji: All you need to know about fake phones”
Steven Millward, “Xiaomi becomes China’s top smartphone brand for first time in 2014, whips Samsung”, Tech In Asia, February 17, 2015, https://www.techinasia.com/xiaomi-china-top-smartphone-brand-2014-beats-samsung.
Lai Lin Thomala, “Mobile phone internet users in China 2015-2026”, August 16, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/558731/number-of-mobile-internet-user-in-china/
Sophia L. Zhou, Xianhan Jia, Samuel P. Skinner, William Yang, and Isabelle Claude, “Lessons on mobile apps for COVID-19 from China”, Journal of Safety Science and Resilience, 2 (2021), 42.