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Cell Phones Use to be a Status Symbol in China. Not Anymore.

— April 18, 2023

Once upon a time, cell phones were few and far between.

To say that mobile phones have changed our lives would be a massive understatement. In a short time, mobile phones have gone from a status symbol to essential equipment – whenever we see someone out and about, we can be sure they are going to have a phone in their pocket, if not in their hand. Most of us spend the vast majority of our time always having a phone within arm’s reach. 

In China, the evolution of the use of the mobile phone has taken a slightly different trajectory than in much of the rest of the world, but the end result has been largely the same. Today, phones are nearly ubiquitous across China, so it’s interesting to look back at how that journey has played out over recent years. 

As most people will remember, early mobile phones didn’t look much like the sleek devices we are used to today. In a word, they were huge. The first mobile phones were big and heavy, largely due to the need to have a sizeable battery that could power the device. Despite the inconvenience, those in China who were able to own a phone in the early ‘90s tended to carry it around everywhere they went. Those phones were an indication of importance and success, and they were prominently displayed. 

Cell Phones Use to be a Status Symbol in China. Not Anymore.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Of course, early phones didn’t offer much in the way of performance, as the mobile network was limited and the only function available was making calls (rather than streaming videos, taking pictures, accessing apps, etc.). Even with that limitation, having a phone was still seen as an advantage over not having one, and it allowed business-people to make deals faster and with a wider range of customers. Without a doubt, those early phones played a prominent role in shaping the market that China has become in recent years. 

To be sure, today’s mobile phones aren’t seen as a status symbol in China, as they are held by nearly everyone across the country. More than a billion people have a smartphone in China, making it the largest market in the world. Not only does almost everyone have a smartphone, but most people use that phone for mobile payments, with paying by phone being widely accepted throughout the country. 

That’s only possible because of the extensive investment the Chinese government has made in the mobile network that serves the country. Unlike many other countries, where rural areas are not served by wireless connectivity, China has gone deep into the rural areas to build out a network that can serve as a model for the rest of the world. Fast, reliable service is available almost everywhere in China, only serving to enhance the usefulness of mobile devices. 

There is no turning back from the mobile future that we have entered. While these kinds of devices once signaled to others that people were important or wealthy – or both – they are now used by the masses, and that reality seems certain to remain for years to come. In China as in the rest of the world, many new things have been made possible by the wonder of mobile technology. 


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