China is covered in QR codes. The blocks of little black and white squares—amped up barcodes, essentially—show up on everything, everywhere. They are on signs, product packaging, advertisements, buildings, shipping labels, business cards, and too much else to even name.
Originally developed in Japan, QR codes (“quick response codes,” to give them their full name) never quite caught on in the US—or at least not yet. Many people probably first encountered them a few years ago with the initial rise of smartphones, when some developers and companies experimented with using them here and there, but no one really seemed to get much use out of them, and developers appeared to quickly turn their attention to other, seemingly sexier and more advanced technologies, like NFC. After all, who would want to go to the trouble of scanning something, when just waving your phone over a reader device would be so much more fluid?
But in one of those inexplicable little cases of realworld alternative history, what fell flat in North America took off in China. Now, QR codes are not just printed everywhere, they are built into the very design of user interactions for everything from mobile payments to adding contacts.
People have been taking note, and QR codes have cropped up in some outlandish places in China—including actual crops. One village in Hebei province, adjacent to Beijing, recently won some fame online with a giant field of juniper trees planted in the shape of a (real and functioning) QR code.
That was intended as a bid to attract tourists. But the real measure of how significant QR codes now are in China is the many use cases where they don’t attract attention at all, because they’ve already become too ordinary to even be worth remarking upon. Finding them printed on ads, signs, packaging, and even walls isn’t even novel, it’s just a given. They’ve made much of the urban physical environment in China machine readable, and were it not for the fact that they’re meant to be seen and used, they’d be virtually invisible. And with that ubiquity, the simple act of scanning them has seeped into and become part of so many routine tasks that they begin to seem indispensable.
Here, we’ve assembled a quick, concise primer on the main uses of QR codes in China today to illustrate how, and how far, one of the humblest technologies of the smartphone era has reshaped everyday life.
Uber may have left China, but QR codes are here to stay, apparently. Scanning this code will still work, surprisingly, and take you directly to Tencent’s app store to download Uber’s app. Signs like this (albeit usually not for defunct services) are everywhere on the streets of Chinese cities, offering in-the-moment, on-the-spot links to apps and services when and where people are likely to need them.
Bike-sharing also relies on QR codes. The game-changing advantage of China’s bike-sharing companies has been that they don’t need to be docked, but can be picked up and parked anywhere. For that to work, each bike needs a lock, and in order to unlock a particular bike, there has to be a unique identifier for it that can be logged in to the corresponding app. QR codes are what made that feasible.
In chain convenience stores, a customer can call up a QR code in either WeChat Pay or Alipay and let a clerk scan it from the screen of their phones. The impact of this application of QR codes alone has been immense: it is what has driven China towards a virtually cashless economy, almost without trying. Roughly 85% of retail transactions in China are now made with such mobile payments.
But one of the more subtle benefits of enabling mobile payments through QR codes is that businesses can turn the process around. In mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, the shop owners can simply print out a QR code—typically one for Alipay, one for WeChat Pay—and stick them next to the register or on a wall (some restaurants even have individual QR codes for each table, so you can pay without even needing to ask the waiter to bring the check). A customer then just has to scan one of the codes with their phone, enter the payment total, and confirm with a PIN. It’s not quite as seamless from the customer’s perspective, but it allows anyone, even streetside fruit sellers, to accept mobile payments without the need to equip themselves with scanners of their own. With nothing more than the cost of printing out a sheet of paper, the smallest vendors have thus been able to be a part of the charge towards a cashless economy, rather than getting left behind.
QR codes even show up on product packaging: ramen packets, beer bottles, medicine, boxes of tea, household appliances, and a thousand other goods. They’re function isn’t like barcodes, though; they’re not there for sellers, they’re for the consumer. You scan the codes to follow a brand’s official WeChat account, to get promotional offers, or access additional information about the product. They’re a channel for (trying to get) consumers to interact further with a brand.
Shipping labels with QR codes let senders track their packages.
QR codes have even been finding their way into device interfaces. Here, a Sony camera offers a QR code that allows it to be controlled remotely through a user’s phone.
Business cards now regularly come with QR codes. Similarly, it’s possible to add someone as a contact on WeChat by calling up a QR code on the screen of their phone and just scanning it.
One reason that developers in North America perhaps turned away from using QR codes early on was a sense that they are relatively “low tech,” at least as compared to NFC or RFID tags. But when looking at the full picture of how QR codes get used, the kinds of actions and interactions that they allow, that “low tech” simplicity actually proves to be an asset. To interact with a QR code, you don’t have to be in close proximity to it, you just need a line of sight, or even just an image of it; it’s possible to snap a photo of a QR code on a billboard or a business card and send it to a friend, so that they can “scan” it remotely. Granted, there are some limited applications where that might not be desirable, but by and large it gives QR codes a kind of convenience and flexibility that supposedly more advanced technical solutions can’t easily match.