The internet is paying havoc with the way Chinese people interact with each otherby Yuan Ren / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
©Dan Sipple/Getty Images Dining out with a friend recently, I only realised that two people sitting opposite us were together when they got up to leave. For over half an hour they had appeared to be strangers: her taking selfies, him reading on his phone. When I pointed this out to my companion, he replied, “They probably just messaged each other to ask if they should head out.’” In China, the act of “phubbing,” as it is known (a contraction of “phone-snubbing”) is far more noticeable—and definitely more acceptable—than in many western countries. I’ve been severely phubbed many times. I dated someone who would start reading news or checking stocks whenever we sat down to eat. He’d perfected the dinner-phubbing pose of one hand holding chopsticks, the other scrolling his phone. When I told a friend about the new “third wheel” ruining my dates, he said that at his school reunion the previous night, everyone was head down posting pictures and messaging friends on the app WeChat during dinner. “That’s just the way things go now,” he said. A report by the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) found that 87 per cent of adults aged 16 to 24 years old checked WeChat or QQ messenger at least once every 15 minutes. This is nothing new: in 2008, China became the first country in the world to label internet addiction as a clinical disorder. As in South Korea, boot camps exist to wean teenagers off their “drug.” WeChat is owned by the Chinese tech giant Tencent. With nearly 900m users, the app has made audio messaging as popular as typed messages: only in China will you see people speaking into their phone as if it were a walkie-talkie, then playing the audio reply out loud. Few consider that noise a public nuisance—it’s just the norm. People are constantly engaging with their phones because apps have become life enablers for smartphone owners in China. Multi-functional apps such as WeChat and Alipay not only have Facebook and WhatsApp-like features integrated with their core functions, but also offer services that make them indispensable. Ordering taxis, paying gas bills, booking cinema tickets, online shopping and much more can be found on just one app. A Tencent report released this year said that almost 90 per cent of WeChat users access the app daily, with a fifth of active users spending more than four hours a day on it; more than half spent over an hour on it. “I couldn’t do anything without WeChat,” a friend told me, aghast at the prospect of it breaking down for a few hours, Paying with banknotes may soon be a thing of the past. Inside a Beijing McDonald’s last month, a waiter was thrown when I wanted to pay with cash—he was all ready to scan my QR code. You might not have a choice in using WeChat. The Tencent report also showed that last year, most people’s new WeChat contacts were work-related—it’s become a major business tool. Work emails have been replaced by WeChat messages; modern Chinese society expects a swift reply, or someone may take offence—you may even find yourself deleted if you’re AWOL too long. With so much energy expended online, it’s no surprise that “offline” life has to give. A recent article jokingly listed “facial paralysis” as a symptom of the “WeChat syndrome.” Afflicted individuals appear excited in messenger mode—all emojis and exclamations—but only have one expression in person. One silver lining is that my grandparents’ generation is getting something out of these tech-driven behavioural changes. CASS found that two-thirds of elderly Chinese had more contact with their children as a result of social media. Both of my granddads, use WeChat daily. They call more often now because video chat is free and doesn’t require them to look up my number. But the online world is increasingly a disturbance to the real world, even in my home. This year, a significant portion of family dinners have suddenly been spent with my mum updating us on what web links she had been sent and what she has discovered through WeChat’s “moments” feature. There’s also the odd bit of “fake news” mixed in. “Well, my father-in-law watches videos of other people eating while he is eating,” one friend told me. “He thinks watching others stuff themselves makes his own meal taste better.” Maybe, as well as being about simple addiction, it’s about being part of something—whether online or offline—and believing that sharing experiences can enhance one’s own. I asked Mum what kept up the enthusiasm in her 30-strong chat group of university friends, where people regularly post photos and news, 40 years on from first meeting. “We Chinese people have a strong sense of a collective,” she replied. “It’s more enjoyable when others get involved and make noise.” Even though my generation didn’t grow up in fully fledged communist China as my parents did, there is still a preference for collective behaviour and the sense of validation and inclusion it offers. For my mum, friendships from her student days are especially precious, forged at a time when relationships were “purer,” before self-interest, money, and power dominated social interactions, as many believe it does today. Whether it’s the search for nostalgia, the anxiety of stocks dropping in value, or impatiently checking the progress of an online purchase, there’s an app for that, and it’s quickly making the line between the on and offline worlds disappear.