Why Chinese people don’t use email

Apr 25, 2019

Emailing people in China can be a frustrating experience for one simple reason: you rarely get a reply.

In the West, emails are more likely to be overlooked because they become buried under other emails.

In China, however, the concept just seems to be disregarded entirely, whether in business or personal life.

And there’s a reason for this, one that’s tangled up in the history of China’s internet and the rise of Chinese tech companies.

The early years of China’s internet

At the turn of the millennium, email had already become commonplace in the West. Having an email address was as much a social expectation as having a phone number.

And by the time email celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2001, nearly every business had an email address.

At the same time, less than 3 percent of China’s population was using the internet, according to the World Bank, and many of them didn’t even have home connections, so they had to go to internet cafes to get online.

An internet cafe in Chengdu.
An internet cafe in Chengdu. / Photo: Shutterstock

“One factor was that from a very early time in the adoption of the internet in China, it was dominated by very young people, many of whom were not working in white-collar office environments,” says Kaiser Kuo, former international communications director at the Chinese search engine Baidu and now editor-at-large at SupChina. “Their main attraction to the internet wasn’t productivity. They were more focused on its social possibilities.”

(Read more: Chinese kids are avoiding their parents by using this ’90s messaging app)

In 1999, a small tech company in China, Tencent, decided to rip off the popular desktop messaging platform ICQ and created QQ.

QQ in 1999.
QQ in 1999. / Photo: Tencent

QQ proved popular, and soon, messaging became the preferred mode of communication at internet cafes and among households with computers.

Chinese internet users had essentially skipped over email and gone straight to messaging.

The rise of WeChat

In 2011, Tencent released a messaging app that would completely change the game in China’s tech scene and propel the company into one of the largest in the world.

WeChat, or Weixin as it is known in China, quickly supplanted QQ as the most popular way to communicate in the country. There are now more than a billion daily active users, nearly the entire population of the country.

The ubiquity of WeChat means that most people use it for both work and personal life.

(Read more: How an entire country came to rely on one app)

One former government worker says she never bothered emailing other public institutions because she knew they would go unanswered.

Instead, many of these organizations communicate with official WeChat accounts or through other instant messaging platforms.

This chart breaks down how a typical worker communicates on a daily basis in China.
This chart breaks down how a typical worker communicates on a daily basis in China. / Photo: Abacus

As to why email never caught on, some have cited the inaccessibilty of email jargon with its CCs and BCCs, while others have pointed out that using email addresses in English is an additional barrier.

On the business side, Kuo notes that there wasn’t much incentive to invest in developing email products because monetization paths weren’t obvious at the time.

Ultimately, though, many resort to WeChat simply because it’s fast and convenient, especially in work environments.

One can send images and documents, and conduct video conferences all in the app—and they’re only just a few of the features available.

Blurred lines

China’s demanding work culture plays a role, too. Some say that the use of messaging has to do with the lack of standardized procedures at Chinese companies compared with Western ones, which means the divide between personal and professional lives is less strict.

Instant messaging, then, doesn’t just mean convenience; it also means being available at all times.

In China, work means being available on WeChat at all times.
In China, work means being available on WeChat at all times. / Photo: AP

Elliott Zaagman, executive coach and host of the China Tech Investor podcast, believes it’s related to the tech industry’s notorious “996 culture,” referring to how most people at Chinese tech companies work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week.

“The prevalence of emojis, voice messages, and informal communication add to this more flexible and less black-and-white professional and personal relationships that often go with work in China,” Zaagman says.

(Read more: The emojis you use don’t mean what you think in China)

But of course, this phenomenon isn’t restricted to China. It’s also happening in many Western companies, where messaging platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams are gaining traction and blurring the line between work and personal communication.

This means that the West’s email dependence could also soon wither away—for better or for worse.

Adapted from an article first published in Abacus.

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