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Digital hong bao rockets

News, 24 February 2015

BEIJING: The tradition of giving red envelopes of cash during Chinese New Year has fast-forwarded into the digital age, as more than 1bn were exchanged digitally on one social media site this year, highlighting the growth of online payment in the country.

In 2014, when they were first launched, WeChat users sent 20m hong bao to each other; in 2015 the figure was 1.01bn, the messaging app has revealed.

The individual amounts were small, as the total value amounted to 1bn yuan. Alibaba users appeared more generous, as it reported 240m packets sent via Alipay with a value of 4bn yuan.

Part of the appeal is in the way the tradition has been gamified, according to South China Morning Post, which explained how WeChat users could distribute virtual red packets to groups of online friends – when a graphic appears in the middle of a conversation stream whoever is quick enough to click on it can get the money.

And when that approach is also taken by a leading TV show, then the stage is set for a transformation of the tradition.

The annual Spring Festival Gala show this year used WeChat to give away $80m provided by corporate sponsors for digital hong bao. Viewers had to use the WeChat Shake feature on their phones – normally deployed to find fellow users of the messaging app nearby – at certain times to have a chance of winning some cash.

According to Tencent, there were a total of 11 billion shakes during the show, with a peak of 810m shakes per minute.

Opinions appear divided on this development, some arguing that traditions are successfully adapting to modern, digital behaviours.

Others are disappointed that family is being ignored by people staring at their mobile phones in the hope of winning some money.

As Tech In Asia pointed out, however, the sums typically being gifted digitally are small and those being dispensed in physical envelopes between family members are likely to be significantly greater.

Data sourced from South China Morning Post, Tech In Asia; additional content by Warc staff