How to Launch an App in China and Not Screw Up

For both startups and businesses that have already gone through launching apps on Google Play and App Store, the Chinese digital market might remain a mystery. With different app stores, social media, legal regulations, and even different culture that is embedded in your target audience’s lifestyle — launching an app in China is like entering an entirely new world. And to succeed in it, you have to follow its rules.

Is it worth a try? And if so, what should you consider before taking the leap? In this article, we explain the specifics of launching a mobile app in China, explore the potential pitfalls you might face, and share tips to avoid them. And most importantly, we share Mind Studios’ own experience of working with a project created specifically for the Chinese market — a multiplatform application, Unight.

China app market is booming

Digitalization in China has been transforming each business and public sector at rocket speed, through mobile apps in particular. The best way to demonstrate the pace of this process is with statistics:

Now, let’s get into the details. As of April 2022, Android’s market share in China is almost 80%, and it is likely to remain the main operating system among smartphone users in the country. Therefore, a decision to build an Android app for the Chinese market is inevitable. However, as you probably already know, Google and Apple app stores aren’t the platforms where Chinese users get their apps from. So, what will be the bridge between your product and your target audience?

In China, many popular Android app stores belong to smartphone manufacturers like Huawei, Samsung, Vivo, Xiaomi, and Oppo. For instance, Huawei, a technology corporation and one of the biggest smartphone manufacturers, has its own store AppGallery which claims to have 580 million monthly users. The influence of Huawei on the market is so powerful that recently the corporation even collaborated with Baidu, the most popular search engine in the country, to work on AI solutions for web applications.

Here is the list of top-10 most popular app stores in China:

Market share of the Android app stores in China as of October 2021

Source: Statista

Launching an iOS app in China can also be a feasible idea since Apple’s operating system is also present in the market. However, here it is less common (around 20% in market shares) and differs from the version well-known in the western part of the world. To meet the Chinese licensing requirements, business owners have to launch their iOS apps on the Chinese version of the App Store to reach local users.

As of the end of 2021, there were 2.5 million applications available on the Chinese app market. So, is it a good idea to become a drop in this overpowering ocean? Let’s find out.

Benefits of launching an app for the Chinese market

Despite the difficulties entrepreneurs have to overcome when launching an app in China, the prospects of this constantly growing market with over 1 billion users make it worth the effort. Let’s take a look at the most compelling advantages of entering China’s app market.

Investment in a constantly growing market

In 2021, China’s GDP increased by 8.1 percent and reached $17.7 trillion, therefore coming second after the USA. And even though China’s GDP per person is six times lower than in the US, China has already become an upper-middle-income country, and theoretically could overtake the US economy by 2030.

According to the British Consultancy Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), China’s annual economic growth will slow down a little, but this only indicates that the country is on its way to becoming a high-income one.

Moreover, economists predict that in the nearest future China will depend less on export manufacturing and instead invest more in high-tech development, especially hardware technology.

With the continual GDP increase, household income is also growing. Consumer spending is also increasing: for instance, now, 800 million people in China use mobile payments on a daily basis.

Access to the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world

The fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world

Source: Statista Digital Market Outlook

Since 2014, e-commerce share in retail sales has more than doubled in China. In 2021, the number of retail purchases made online there reached 24.5%. That’s almost $2 trillion in retail sales. Compare this with the US, where during the fourth quarter of 2021, the share of e-commerce in retail sales amounted to 12.9 percent only and continues to drop.

Moreover, the Chinese make 90% of their online retail purchases through mobile devices. According to Alex Andrenacci, EY Asia-Pacific Consulting Technology Leader, “China is the largest e-commerce market in the world, has a population that lives on mobile devices and will likely soon use pure digital currency. This makes it imperative that MNCs align with local technology partners and deeply understand the local purchasing demands and expectations of consumers.”

Therefore, if you want to find new consumers in China, building a native app or at least a mini-app is of vital importance.

An opportunity to test innovative products

China is steadily outgrowing its image of copycats and becoming a leading trendsetter in terms of innovative projects and business models, especially when it comes to e-commerce, fintech, and AI technologies. Moreover, digital products developed in China are winning over people from all over the world. For example, TikTok, owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, has over 1 billion monthly users, though it’s no longer available to China residents.

Therefore, if you have a one-of-a-kind app idea that involves innovative technology, such as AI, AR or VR, live-streaming features, and so on, consider launching it in China first. There, you can test whether it is viable even without making considerable investments. To do so, start with building a mini-app — a small application with just one or a couple of features.

With numerous obstacles still in the way of launching an app in China, many entrepreneurs from Western countries are waiting for more favorable conditions to start conquering the market. However, with this approach, they might miss the window of opportunity. And at the same time, putting in more effort and entering the Chinese app market right now might give you a head start and give the Chinese consumers the product they have been waiting for.

The Great Firewall

The Great Firewall of China

The reason Chinese internet users cannot use Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other websites and apps, lies behind the Great Firewall. Essentially, it is an internet censorship tool that consists of various legislative actions and technologies blocking access to a number of foreign websites and slowing down cross-border internet traffic. For foreign companies, this means choosing between not operating in the Chinese market at all or adapting their websites and apps to the local regulations.

How do these restrictions actually work? As of 2022, there are 8 licensed internet service providers, all controlled by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Internet management deals not only with blocking access to websites and apps, but also with keeping an eye on individual social media accounts and content that is posted there. VPN services are also extremely hard to access in China. Moreover, internet users cannot make publications on social media and other platforms anonymously, since submitting real names to internet providers is obligatory.

Entrepreneurs, who intend to enter China’s internet market, should keep in mind that “within Chinese territory, the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.”

In addition to this, they must know the basic internet regulations, which include:

  • Managing Online Information, which states that internet service providers must have a license, and internet traffic must go through the appropriate networks
  • Security of Computer Information Systems, which explains that internet security protection is the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Security
  • Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing, which makes sure there are no forbidden activities on the internet

There are a ton more rules to follow if you want to keep conducting business online in China. For instance, before launching a news website or application, you have to get a license from the State Council Information Agency. And if you build a gaming app, it must be submitted for review to receive a game license from China’s National Press and Publication Administration.

All this might seem overwhelming if you’ve never worked with the Chinese market before. However, in comparison to other countries, like Myanmar, Egypt, or Russia, internet limitations in China are fairly manageable.

Countries with the lowest internet freedom index scores in 2021

Source: Freedom House and Statista

We won’t deny it will take extra effort to bypass the obstacles set by the local government. However, the market is worth it. Besides, if you choose a team with experience in mobile app development for China’s market, that is half the battle won.

Mind Studios is a software engineering company, yet we are not limited to just creating UI/UX design and writing code. Before implementing ideas, we always dive deep into research of our clients’ business areas and the market they are targeting. Therefore, when working with projects for the Chinese market, we come up with solutions that won’t be affected by local legal regulations.

If you still feel hesitant about whether you want to launch a mobile application in China, book a free consultation with our development consultant to discuss how your idea could be implemented.

Things to consider before launching a mobile application in China

1. Explore the local context

Explore the Chinese lifestyle

The first thing to do before implementing the idea is to validate it. This step requires thorough research of the market you are about to enter to get a profound understanding of your target audience. Studying users’ lifestyles, behavior, and needs will help you provide them with the solutions they have been waiting for. Investing in this stage will help you avoid mistakes and even save money in the long run.

Will your app fit in with the Chinese lifestyle? Does it solve any problems or satisfy the needs local users have? Is your app idea unique and doesn’t have any attention-worthy competitors on the market? Once you have affirmative answers to these questions, you can start building the application.

2. Choose the right app store

Since Google and Apple app stores are not an option in China, you will have to decide on other platforms to launch your app on. The tricky thing with the Chinese Android app stores is that there are a lot of them. As of 2022, there are around 25 major Android app stores in China, and the overall number has surpassed 400. However, you don’t have to launch your app on all platforms — just pick the biggest ones. For instance, if your app appears only on Huawei AppGallery, Vivo App Store, and Oppo Software Store, you will still cover more than half of the market.

Keep in mind that some app stores differ in terms of users or specialize in particular kinds of apps, like gaming ones. Therefore, before you build an Android app for the Chinese market, it’s important to research the options and see if your target audiences overlap.

3. Be ready for complicated approval procedures

Opening any kind of business in China, and launching an Android mobile app in particular, comes with endless bureaucratic red tape. You will need to submit a list of documents, and the approval process will depend on numerous factors, including an app category and app stores you pick.

There are 6 main obligations that you need to follow to get an application approved in China:

  • Verifying your real name so that you can get registered in the system
  • Setting up a system for auditing and managing user-generated content so that no forbidden content is published
  • Providing effective tools to protect users’ information
  • Protecting users’ rights to control their information, which means you will have to get users’ consent to access their data and phone features
  • Protecting intellectual property rights
  • Recording and saving user information, which means your app will have to store and save user’s login info for no less than 60 days

Depending on the type of your app, you may need to undergo additional processes to get a license from the Chinese officials.

4. Localize your app

Localize your app to fit the Chinese market

Even if you already have a successful app created for the global market, it doesn’t mean it will instantly become popular in China. To make sure you succeed, you have to adjust every aspect of your app to the specifics of the local culture. Here is a list of tips that will help you localize your app:

  • Pick a Chinese name. Even globally renowned brands have changed their names to local ones. For instance, Uber in China is 优步, meaning “nice ride”
  • Switch to Mandarin, the language spoken by the majority of the Chinese population
  • Use QR codes. Those are popular for payments, adding new contacts, etc. They can also help you advertise your brand and apply an online-merged-with-offline marketing approach
  • Make the experience of using your app fun. Design practices in China are entirely different from those popular in the West. Use gamification, bright colors, toy-like design, and as many interactive elements as you can to engage users
  • Find alternatives to services that are blocked in China. Prospective users won’t be able to check out your brand on Google or Twitter, so make sure they can find you on Baidu, Weibo, and other platforms popular in China
  • Provide WeChat integration. In many countries, it has become standard practice to add a login option via Google or Facebook. In China, this function goes to WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging app with 1.26 billion monthly active users as of 2022.

5. Use Chinese payment providers

Use Chinese payment providers

Whether you plan to monetize your app via subscriptions, in-app purchases, or in-app ads, it’s essential to integrate with local payment providers. WeChat Pay (900 million active users) and Alipay (over 1 billion active users) are the most popular options.

6. Make sure your app doesn’t require much traffic

Though the majority of the population in China has internet access, the connection can be slow even in the country’s biggest cities. Besides, few users have unlimited data mobile plans, so it’s advisable to avoid building a data-hungry app. We suggest making sure that at least some of your app’s features can work offline. In addition, you can use loading bars and skeleton screens that load up instantly.

7. Consider building a mini-program

Mini programs are small applications that require no installation. Essentially, they are a part of a super app — a multi-functional platform that provides access to a package of services. WeChat is also a Chinese super-app, its users can send instant messages, shop online, order takeout, and even apply for a loan, all in one place. Building a mini-app is much cheaper than native app development. However, it comes with a price since the number of features and the size of such programs are limited.

Find out more about the pros and cons of WeChat Mini Programs here: Conquering China: How to Make a WeChat Mini Program.

Mind Studios’ Experience

One of the most significant projects in Mind Studios’ portfolio happens to be an app created specifically for the Chinese market. A few years ago, we got the task to build native apps and a WeChat Mini Program that would navigate nightlife lovers through dining and clubbing venues in Chinese cities. This is how Unight was created.

Unight case study

The first thing we did after receiving the task was making an all-encompassing business analysis. During this stage, we immersed ourselves in studying the Chinese nightlife market, as well as customers’ habits and needs.

As a result, together with our client Artur Engalychev and designers from HeartBeat.ua, we came up with a solution that fit the Chinese lifestyle and our target audience’s needs perfectly. Integrating WeChat, providing QR-code scanning features, and creating a color scheme that would reveal the ambiance of local nightlife — every detail of the app was consistent with the local culture.

Just as we expected, local limitations made this project an extremely challenging one. We had to find alternatives to multiple European and American tools, like those for integrating maps, notifications, and cloud hosting. Here are a few solutions we have implemented that might work for your product as well:

  • Notifications: APNS for iOS notifications and Baidu cloud notifications for Android
  • Authorization through social networks: WeChat API for Android and WeChat SDK for iOS
  • Maps: Apple Maps for iOS and AMAP solution for Android
  • Hosting: Aliyun Cloud for cloud hosting and GoDaddy for web hosting
  • Payment methods: aggregating Alipay and WeChat Pay via the Ping++ aggregator

What did we get out of this experience? Working with the Chinese market got us to realize that even under challenging circumstances, we can find perfect solutions as long as we do our research and dig deep enough.

Final Thoughts

Launching a mobile application in China won’t be anything like implementing digital projects in western countries. For those entering the market for the first time, this task may look like a hurdle race. Among numerous obstacles to maintaining a business in China are internet censorship, endless legal regulations, and the unique cultural context that one has to take into account to appeal to prospective users.

Nonetheless, if you do decide to create a mobile app for Chinese market, you will get the chance to target a market with 1 billion users and $2 trillion USD in online sales. Besides, choosing a trustworthy team with experience in launching an app in China will transform a complicated challenge into an exciting journey full of new opportunities.

Book a free consultation with Mind Studios, and we’ll discuss your idea, build a clear plan of action, and help you conquer this tricky yet extremely promising market.