Chinese internet giants transplant 'red envelopes' holiday tradition to mobile cyberspace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 6:21pm

Could the Chinese tradition of giving red envelopes with cash inside as gifts go digital during this year’s Lunar New Year holiday? That is what the new feature on Tencent’s flagship messaging mobile application WeChat, a “red envelope" add-on which went viral this weekend, aims to do.

The service introduced on Wechat is the latest clever integration of a Chinese element into a digital product. Since Sunday, the application has allowed its 600 million users around the world to send and receive virtual “red envelopes”, a popular Chinese practice.

Referred to as “lai see” in Cantonese or “hong bao” in Mandarin, the “red envelope” refers to a monetary gift that is put into a red envelope and distributed during big social gatherings such as the Lunar New Year or weddings, and is a big part of Chinese tradition and culture.

The amount of money put in each red envelope on WeChat is set to less than 200 yuan (HK$254) at the moment, which is then credited to the receiver’s bank account. But to make it more entertaining, an add-in function also allows a group of users to rush for one red envelope – so whoever is the first to open it in a group chat can receive it. Another choice available to the giver is to allow the system to randomly allocate an amount of money in one red envelope for a group of friends.

The novel feature appears to have spawned a craze over the weekend as it spread rapidly throughout WeChat’s pervasive user networks across the country. However it was Alibaba Group, one of Tencent’s biggest domestic competitors, that was first to introduce the concept of the “red envelope” service on its own newly-launched mobile messaging application “Laiwang” late last year. But due to its relative small user base, it did not become very popular.

Tencent teams up with Google to spread WeChat in the US

Tencent is also tapping Google’s social-media platform Google Plus to increase the presence of its messaging service WeChat in the US market.

A message sent to all of its US-based users promised them US$25 restaurant vouchers if they synchronised their Google accounts with WeChat and could convince five of their Google Plus contacts to join the Chinese micro-messaging service by the end of January, according to a report by Caixin on Monday.

The marketing ruse could mark a significant step for the partnership of the two internet giants and is another ambitious attempt by Tencent to seize more market shares for its star app in the United States as a part of its aggressive global expansion.

WeChat, already by far the most-used messaging mobile application in China, overtook weibo microblogs as China’s most popular social media platform some time last year, and it also showed strong growth overseas last year.

According to Business Insider, the number of mobile WeChat users outside China reached 78 million in the fourth quarter of 2013, a 375 per cent increase from two quarters earlier. In comparison, Facebook observed an 11 per cent growth and WhatsApp, Tencent’s direct competitor outside China, grew by 35 per cent over the same period of time.