HONG KONG -- Like many Chinese citizens, Xu Chang scrolls through e-commerce sites on his phone every day. He chats with his friends via WeChat, a ubiquitous instant messaging app. He navigates through Beijing's traffic jams using Gaode Maps. When a cold spell hits, he stays at home, enjoying meals delivered through a food delivery app.
But Xu is not a millennial; he is an 80-year-old retiree. After reading an article about Alibaba Group Holding founder Jack Ma and his e-commerce empire five years ago, the former civil servant said he could not help but download Alibaba's Taobao app. "I was curious about what Taobao could offer," Xu recalled. Since then, he has tried apps one after another, with a total of 64 apps now installed on his smartphone.
"The use of mobile apps has made my life much easier," Xu said. "I've also learned plenty of new things," he added, referring to a wide range of products he has discovered on Taobao as well as stories he read on Toutiao, a news aggregator app that the Chinese senior said delivers news faster than television channels he used to watch.
Not only have those apps made Xu's life more enjoyable, but they also enabled him to lend a hand to others in need. "Some of my friends are too old to go out shopping, so I made online purchases on their behalf and delivered the goods to their home," he said.
Government statistics show that the number of Chinese people aged 65 or above had reached 166.6 million by 2018. The country's digital transformation has been rapid and extreme, which has led to fears that many of the country's growing elderly population, who may be less able to adapt to new technology, could be left behind -- there are more than four million apps in China, but few are dedicated to serving the elderly.
However, there is evidence that, rather than being alienated by digitization, Chinese seniors, like Xu, are embracing the possibilities of technology -- a trend that may help China to address its increasingly pressing aging problem.
One case in point is Tang Yanhang, an empty nester in the northern Chinese city of Changchun. As Tang lives away from her daughter, she had no choice but to carry heavy shopping bags back home by herself. But after learning how to use e-commerce apps in 2017, the 64-year-old simply shops online and waits for the goods to come to her. "This is really convenient," she said.
Using WeChat has enabled Zhong Peicheng, a 59-year-old cancer patient from Henan province, to stay in touch with his sons, who live several hundred miles away, working in the construction industry in Guangdong. Zhong has to stay in his hometown for treatment, and his children can only afford to go back home once a year. But "they call me on WeChat every day," Zhong said. "We can see each other clearly on video."
Across China, roughly 63 million people aged 55 and above use WeChat, according to a report published last January by the app's operator Tencent Holdings. While the figure may sound impressive, Chinese seniors accounted for less than 6% of WeChat's monthly active users, however. In a separate study, Tencent found that roughly half of 800 Chinese seniors surveyed in 2017 had used WeChat Pay or other e-wallets. The proportion of the elderly who had experienced online shopping or online medical consultation was lower.
Alert to the opportunity in the "silver economy," some companies are now designing products specifically for the market. Chinese e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba Group Holding has recently started training its smart speaker to understand Chinese dialects, making it possible for the elderly to control home appliances in their native language. Courses, such as how to shop online, have also found their way into the curriculums of Chinese senior schools. In Ningbo, local authorities recently announced that they helped at least 100,000 seniors master the use of smartphones in 2019.
Chinese seniors are keen to help each other, too. In fact, Tang, the retiree in Changchun, has turned the moment of learning into an opportunity of social networking. Whenever Tang ran into technical barriers, she would screenshot it, upload the picture online and brainstorm with other retirees. After a discussion, the problem was usually resolved. "We have to keep learning if we don't want to be left behind," she said.