Chinese New Year’s Traditions Go Digital

Chinese New Year’s Traditions Go Digital

Why you should care

Because showing respect for the elderly means just as much in digital form. 

Hundreds of millions of people sent and received money online to friends and relatives over the Lunar New Year festival, as technology continues to permeate even the most ancient traditions in China.

According to Tencent (a Chinese technology group with an equity value greater than Facebook’s), during the six-day Lunar New Year holiday:

768 million people sent and received hongbao — virtual versions of traditional red packets stuffed with cash — over Weixin Pay, Tencent’s third-party payments business.

Typically, people hand out scores or even hundreds of hongbao: In Tencent’s tally, one person sent 2,723 packets, while another received 3,429.

The mass migration to digital hongbao — initiated four years ago by Tencent — highlights the explosion of making payments with the swipe of a phone in China, where even beggars accept alms by proffering a QR code to passersby. China’s third-party mobile payment market was worth an estimated $15.5 trillion last year, dwarfing those in the U.S. and other countries.

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Observing a custom found in much of East and Southeast Asia, elderly residents in Samarang, Indonesia, receive Lunar New Year packets.

Source Barcroft Media/Getty

Part of the market’s growth is due to poor legacy banking — China has mostly leapfrogged credit cards, for example — but has also been fueled by innovations such as moving hongbao online. Tencent is seeking to export the custom to other markets, including India, where a customized version is available on Hike, the messaging app it backs.

However, the habit is unlikely to reach the same heights as those achieved in China: In 2016, some 64 billion packets changed hands over Tencent’s payments platforms.

Rival Alibaba has also gotten into the act. This year, Ant Financial, its payments affiliate, said more than 250 million users collected all “five fortune cards” in its New Year’s Eve promotion.

But it was not just money doing the rounds on WeChat, which has almost 1 billion users, over the holiday period.

Users sent 230 billion messages — suggesting at least some people were spending more time on their phones than engaging in family conversation — and shared nearly 3 billion posts. At the peak, 28 million people were playing WeChat minigames at the same time.

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Lunar New Year hongbao — usually stuffed with money — are red for good luck and for protection against evil.

Source Copyright by Ata Mohammad Adnan/Getty

They also made 17.5 billion minutes of video and voice calls and, lured by incentives, walked a total of 6.4 trillion steps.

Younger people led the online conversations, with the “post-’90s” — those age 28 and younger — accounting for 42.5 percent of WeChat communication over the six-day period. Another quarter of the conversations were conducted by those born in the 1980s.

It’s all a far cry from a tradition that dates back, depending which version you believe, more than 12 centuries. There are conflicting accounts of the legend that launched the tradition — the birth of an emperor’s son in the 8th century or when the Eight Immortals morphed into coins to protect a child from the demon.

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By Louise Lucas

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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