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Ep. 38: Battle of the Red Packets

In episode 38 of TechBuzz China, co-hosts Ying-Ying Lu and Rui Ma dive into this year’s Battle of the Red Packets. The name refers to the custom of money-giving, which is an important part of the Chinese New Year experience. It has also been taken over by Chinese internet companies as one of their main user acquisition events of the year.

Rui and Ying-Ying begin by sharing the history of hongbao, or “red packet.” In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the traditional gift was simply a stack of coins tied up with red string. With the popularity of paper money came the introduction of the red envelopes we see now. The so-called Battle of the Red Packets emerged in 2014, when WeChat fundamentally changed the rules of the game by allowing users to send digital red packets to the chat groups they are in within the app. WeChat essentially gamified the experience, coining the term 抢红包, or “grabbing red packets.” In the first year, 5 million users grabbed 20 million WeChat red packets 75 million times, from New Year’s Eve to 4 p.m. the next day.

Since 2014, the yearly phenomenon has taken on a life of its own. Listen to hear Rui and Ying-Ying discuss: What additional features has WeChat added to the red packets’ function? What was the link between WeChat and the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala? How does WeChat’s approach contrast with those of other platforms, such as Alibaba’s Alipay? What moves has Baidu made in all of this, and especially this year? What about relative newcomers Douyin and Kuaishou? Finally, in what way do red packets reflect real-life social concepts in China, such as reciprocity and hierarchy (so much so that a Tsinghua University professor has characterized WeChat red packets as a form of social capital accumulation)?

As always, you can find these stories and more at pandaily.com. Do let us know what you think of the show by leaving us an iTunes review, liking our Facebook page, and tweeting at us at @techbuzzchina to win some swag! Thanks also to our listeners over at our partner, dealstreetasia.com.

We’d like to give a shout-out to our friends over at Panda Club Stories, a bilingual children’s podcast with a big vision: to help raise multilingual and multicultural children through storytelling. Season 1 features well-known tales (and some lesser-known stories) of Chinese mythology. For our listeners who have kids: Join Panda Cub as she dives into the seas of dragon kings and explores jade palaces in the sky!

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Rui Ma and Ying-Ying Lu

Rui Ma and Ying-Ying Lu are both entrepreneurs and China-watchers who lived and worked in the technology space in China for many years. Rui Ma is also an angel investor. Together they host the TechBuzz China podcast by Pandaily, a tech media startup reporting on everything about China's innovation.