The China Mobile App Market

the china mobile app market

The China mobile app market is very different from the rest of the world. Due to the Great Firewall of China and a large variety of different Android app stores, the availability and requirements for new apps in the Middle Kingdom vary significantly. 

Most of the popular Western websites and apps like Google – and consequently the Google Play Store – as well as social media like Facebook are blocked in China. This leads to a unique mobile app market in the Middle Kingdom, which we explore in this China Gravy article.


With over 1 billion internet users in 2021 and the number of mobile phone users surpassing 1.6 billion in 2021, China is truly a digital trendsetter. In fact, out of the approximately 8.9 million apps available worldwide, Chinese users account for around 40% of the global app spendings.

As more than half of the internet traffic comes from mobile devices, there are an abundance of opportunities but also challenges when it comes to creating and launching apps in China as well as promoting them.

Read up on the various app stores in China and the available content as well as mobile marketing opportunities for your business.

Overview of the China Mobile App Market

Generally speaking, there are app stores for both iOS and Android devices in China:

  • iOS devices: Chinese Apple’s iOS App Store
  • Android devices: Android App Stores

At a market share of over 80%, Android is the leading smartphone operating system in China. However, the corresponding Google Play Store App, the central Android App Store in the West, is not available in China. 

The remaining 20% are largely based on Apple’s iOS system, which is available in China as a different version from the rest of the world in order to conform with Chinese licensing laws. International app and game publishers must launch their apps on both versions of the Apple App Store to reach users in China and around the world.

Besides, the rapid adoption of mobile technology by Chinese local companies led to the development of Chinese-specific platforms, apps, services, and more.

A surprising fact may be that on average, Chinese mobile phone users have 63 apps installed on their devices. With an abundance of free apps available, Chinese consumers are not very eager to pay for apps they download.

Having said this, let’s look at the top 10 Android app stores in China in 2021 according to monthly active users (MAU):

  1. Huawei App Market Store (华为应用市场): 530 million MAU
  2. Oppo Software Store (OPPO软件商店): 300 million MAU
  3. Tencent My App Store (应用宝): 260 million MAU
  4. VIVO App Store (vivo应用商店): 125 million MAU
  5. 360 Mobile Assistant (360手机助手): 105 million MAU
  6. Xiaomi (MIUI) App Store (小米应用商店): 87 million MAU
  7. Baidu Mobile Assistant (百度手机助手): 81 million MAU
  8. Samsung App Store (三星应用商店): 48 million MAU
  9. Wandoujia (豌豆荚) by Alibaba: 30 million MAU
  10. PP Assistant (PP助手) by Alibaba: 25 million MAU

Google Play and the Apple App Store may lead the mobile app market in the West, but in China, the landscape differs due to the above-mentioned reasons. 

most popular app stores in China based on MAU
Source: (5 November 2021)

Huawei as a key smartphone manufacturer and 5G developer leads the app store markets in China. Recently, Huawei teamed up with Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, to further develop AI for consumer electronics and web applications. Baidu also has its own top 10 apps, the Baidu Mobile Assistant. That’s not surprising as Baidu is the largest search engine in China with a market share of over 70%.

Oppo, VIVO, Xiaomi (MIUI), and Samsung are all popular consumer electronics companies.

Next, Tencent, the Chinese tech giant behind WeChat, QQ, and more popular apps. Tencent does not produce smartphones as of now. 

The 360 Mobile Assistant app store belongs to Qihoo 360, a Chinese internet security company that offers cyber security services as well as a search platform in China. Interestingly the 360 Mobile Assistant app has a large following, likely for its antivirus services, as their search engine platform has a market share of less than 10% in China.

Finally, Wandoujia and PP Assistant belong to Alibaba. Wandoujia allows users to search for videos across multiple platforms and download them locally whenever they have a WIFI connection instead of streaming them to minimize mobile data usage. PP Assistant is basically a “jailbreak” free software to manage Android and iOS devices and easily install games and apps, create backups, and more. 

7 Aspects to Keep in Mind when Creating an App for China

Generally speaking, app standards and usage in China differ from those in Western countries. A Chinese UI design often includes a busier look, anime-like characters, and a toylike cute design – even for professional business apps.

In terms of launching or localizing an app in China, take a look at the following aspects:

  1. Some Cloud services may not be available in China.
  2. Several legal licenses and permits are required when hosting a website in mainland China and running an app. Close collaboration with the local government authorities ensures smooth processes. However, this may be lengthy and you may be expected to follow guidelines that are not necessarily written down or publically available.
    1. ICP license
    2. Commercial license (营业执照)
    3. Developer license (软件著作权证明)
  3. Login and authentication schemes you normally use may not be available in China.
  4. Payments are typically done via WeChat Pay and AliPay, not Credit Card or PayPal. You need WeChat and AliPay accounts including a Chinese bank account.
  5. Chinese culture and customs need to be considered. For example, a “good” number in names, phone numbers, and other communications is 8 (八), pronounced ba, which is similar to the Chinese word for “to become rich”. On the other hand, the number 4 (四), pronounced si, sounds similar to the Chinese word for death (死), and should be avoided. You may not think so, but Chinese people pay close attention to these details.
  6. Content in Simplified Chinese language and tailored to Chinese culture must be created additionally. A simple Google translation of existing international content, often in English, won’t do the trick here.
  7. QR codes and WeChat functionalities like messaging and paying should be incorporated in the app as life in China basically doesn’t happen without these.

To sum it up, Chinese localization goes far beyond translation and must be perfected. If all of this sounds overwhelming or you want to focus your attention on other aspects of your business, consider getting a China expert like China Gravy on board to help you with this step. 

9 Tips to Market Your App in China

In terms of Chinese marketing, promoting your app is similar to marketing products and services:

  1. Promote your app on your Chinese website
  2. Link to your app from your official Chinese social media accounts (WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, etc.)
  3. Collaborate with KOLs to give your app credibility and reliability
  4. Run App Store Optimization (ASO) which is similar to SEO: Choose the best keywords in the description and content of your app, make your app fresh and relevant in this fast-paced market.
  5. Consider Baidu PPC (Baidu Ads) together with Baidu SEO to promote your app

Of course, we have a few additional insider tips based on our own experience:

  1. Consider special Chinese holidays and offer special features and items during these days. Chinese New Year and Singles Day are popular celebrations in the Middle Kingdom with massive consumer spendings. 
  2. Enter collaborations with popular physical stores to leverage the current O2O (online to offline) hype
  3. As an alternative to a full app, consider first (or only) developing a “mini-program” for WeChat. These small apps are quick to install (no need to leave WeChat), lightweight (up to 2MB), and therefore fast, and very easy to use. These mini-programs are easier to build and cheaper compared to “full” apps and Chinese consumers love them, especially live streaming and shopping, games, interactive maps, and translation services.
  4. By offering Android apps as .apk download on your website you can bypass an App Store launch as well as permits like the ICP license. This can be helpful as the commercial ICP license, which is required for larger apps that access Cloud services in China, is difficult to obtain.

So, what are the hottest apps in China right now?

Hottest Chinese Apps

While in the US and Europe, messaging apps (WhatsApp, Zoom, Facebook Messenger) as well as TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram are among the most used apps in 2021, the Chinese market draws a different picture. 

This is due to the online restrictions and because China’s super-app for everything, WeChat, covers all messaging and many more needs of mobile users in China.

In 2021, the 10 most popular apps in China according to monthly active users (MAU) are

  1. WeChat (Tencent): more than 1 billion MAU → Chinese equivalent to WhatsApp, Facebook, and more
  2. Pinduoduo (Tencent-backed): more than 700 million MAU → there are various startups in the US and Europe, but not one central key player
  3. Taobao (Alibaba): more than 700 million MAU → Chinese equivalent to Amazon and Ebay
  4. Alipay (Alibaba): almost 700 million MAU → there are providers like ApplePay in Western markets, but with not nearly the market penetration of AliPay or WeChat Pay
  5. QQ (Tencent): more than 600 million MAU → Chinese equivalent to Skype
  6. Baidu: almost 600 million MAU → Chinese equivalent to Google
  7. Douyin (ByteDance): more than 500 million MAU → the Chinese version of TikTok
  8. Sogou Input (Tencent-backed): more than 500 million MAU → Chinese Pinyin input method editor, for which there is no need in non-Chinese countries
  9. iQiyi (Baidu-backed): more than 400 million MAU → Chinese equivalent to Netflix
  10. Gaode Maps (Alibaba-backed): more than 400 million MAU → Chinese equivalent to Google Maps

As you can see, there are three major players who are competing for the attention of Chinese consumers and market share: Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu. They are also known as the BAT tech giants. Recently, ByteDance, the tech company behind Douyin/TikTok and Toutiao has joined this group.

The Chinese Mobile App Market – The Takeaway

The mobile app market in China is significantly different from the rest of the world. Together with popular platforms like Google and Facebook, the Google Play Store is blocked in China. 

This led to the creation of a large variety of different Android App Stores. While Apple’s iOS App Store is principally available to Chinese customers, the version for the Chinese market is different. This means that iOS app developers have to launch their apps on two systems to reach all consumers around the world.

Paired with different user behavior in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese apps follow their own rhythm and flow. Finally, the Chinese apps and app stores are basically divided among the BAT tech giants plus ByteDance.

If you want to enter the Chinese market with your app, learn how to launch an app in China. Or talk to the China experts at China Gravy to discuss your individual China market entry strategy. Contact us for your FREE consultation today.

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