Saturday, February 15, 2014

Digital year of the horse

China today has 618 million internet users. Internet has pervaded all aspects of life - from buying fresh vegetables, to seeking employment or seeking a life partner. The new year festivities, are on the other hand, one would expect would be seeped in tradition and celebrate the timeless customs. However in China the new year festivities, heralding the year of the horse, have taken a distinctive digital turn.

Firstly, the new year is a time for reunion with families, particularly for the 260 million migrant workers, who toil throughout the year, often away from their families and children. Hence procuring a train ticket to arrive home is of utmost importance. A few years ago, the Chinese  railway  went online and started offering tickets on its website The ticket sales would normally begin around a week before the commencement of the journey. Within a few seconds the system is bombarded with millions of requests, and the tickets are often sold out even before you can successfully log in. Local internet companies like came to the rescue with plug-ins which automate the process of trying to login and get into the system. Of course, many cried foul against such ticket snatching plugs, but not before millions were able to benefit from this software to secure a ticket for a ride home, prompting the website to take steps to block the intrusion from such rogue plug-ins. 

Then there is the practice of exchanging greetings, and wishing each other success, happiness and most importantly prosperity in the coming year. Mobile phone SMS became the de facto medium and 31 billion short messages were exchanged over the cellular network in 2013. 2014, however, saw a sharp decline in the use of SMS - only 18 billion SMS greetings were exchanged - an over 40% decline over last year. The exchange of greetings shifted online, particularly to WeChat, an online messaging platform akin to WhatsApp.

And lastly, the new year is not only the time to exchange greetings, but also more substantial hongbaos or red envelops, normally stuffed with a certain amount of cash, and dished out particularly to the younger and the junior. The hongbao gifting also made its way to the digital arena, with  the facility to gift a hongbao from WeChat. You do that by linking your bank card with your WeChat account, which allows you to gift money, just as it allows a host of other e-commerce activities. Tencent (owners of WeChat) claimed that more than 75 million hongbaos were gifted during the first three days of the Chinese new year.

Digital, hence, has conquered another area of tradition, but in true Chinese spirit, not by destroying what is precious and beautiful in the age old practices, but by further enhancing the joys and jubilations associated with this important festival of China.

Written by Ashok