A Beijing resident reads with MintReading (LI XIN)
The worry of declining English language proficiency has been rattling in Liang Rui's head since she graduated from the University of Huddersfield three years ago. Working at a private company in her hometown Taiyuan, capital of north China's Shanxi Province, the 26-year-old woman had such a tight daily schedule that she could not spare time for her hobby of reading English classics.
Her situation has now improved thanks to a mobile reading app called MintReading. She now starts her day with a delicious breakfast and a browse on MintReading to enjoy some lines from her newly-purchased English e-book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, an exact reflection of her recent changeover.
"The app assigns a task of reading for 10 minutes a day and elaborates on the discourse so that readers can really learn something from reading. It's convenient and efficient," Liang told ChinAfrica. She paid 139 yuan ($22) for a 100-day reading program and is satisfied with her progress. "It helps utilize my fragmentary time, and I have finished two English original works even without noticing it," she added.
Liang is one of the increasingly anxious Chinese people who are eager to continue studies so as to stand out amid a highly competitive country, but are too preoccupied with daily work and trivial matters. Many of them resort to various online courses, which are prolific thanks to current advanced technology, leading them, unconsciously, to become consumers of the fledging pay-for-knowledge industry.
A recent report by iiMedia Research, a Chinese Internet investment analytics firm, revealed that the industry generated revenue of 4.91 billion yuan ($772 million) in 2016, a three-fold increase year on year. By 2020, the market value is expected to amount to 23.5 billion yuan ($3.7 billion). Insiders observed that the essence of the pay-for-knowledge industry is to dig into the commercial potential of knowledge and convert it into profitable products or services.
Seeing the value
The year of 2016 is dubbed an epoch year for the pay-for-knowledge industry. The Chinese equivalence of Quora Q&A, a site called Zhihu, mobile learning apps like iGet, and Ximalaya FM, an audio sharing platform, saw a surge in subscribers and product varieties in that year.
Yang Fan, an analyst with Forward Industry Research Institute, attributes the explosive market to convenient online payment and mature Internet technologies. "They make it possible to purchase and give tips instantly with mobile devices, and also attract content providers to offer and share knowledge on the platforms," he said.
Tian Yimiao is one of those who benefit from sharing knowledge on these platforms. An associate professor of musical composition with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Tian is keen on classical music and hopes to spread this genre to a wider audience. Ximalaya FM is helping her dream come true. By the end of May, her daily exclusive paid courses have accumulated viewership of 13.45 million. Classical music enthusiasts pay 199 yuan ($31.2) to learn from her daily 10-minute class on the platform. For listeners, it only takes a short period of time, during breakfast or the walk from subway station to the office; but for Tian, she usually spends three hours or more to prepare for the 10 minutes. While realizing her dream, Tian has become wealthy. The courses have so far brought her about 10 million yuan ($1.57 million) in revenue.
Besides academics like Tian, writers, entrepreneurs and experts from all walks of life are jumping on the bandwagon to reap the fruits of their knowledge. On the flip side of the coin, more and more subscribers are ready to pay and learn. According to iiMedia Research, the number of people who are willing to pay for knowledge products and services on mobile apps is expected to reach 292 million in 2018, over 20 percent of China's entire population, and the trend is expected to grow.
Convenient and efficient
With the proliferation of smart phones and rapid development of the Internet, people are overwhelmed by tons of information on a daily basis. Most of the time, the fragmented information alone is confusing. Insiders say that these mobile learning apps restructure various fragmented contents to make them systematic and help subscribers build relatively complete knowledge systems over a short period. "We offer solutions to cure people's anxiety of knowledge scarcity," said Wu Qing, Founder of Keting App, which specializes in providing business insights and courses.
Pay-for-knowledge platform is also a product that fit people's fast-paced lifestyle. With smart phones as the carrier, the apps satisfy users' demand of fully using their fragmentary free time. "The apps see users' hunger for
knowledge as business opportunities and tailored products and services for such fragmentary time," said Wu.
Li Xiang is a full-time mom in Beijing. She spends most of her day taking care of her four-year-old son and attending household chores. Despite being so busy, she felt she was lacking mental and spiritual ballast and was afraid of being discarded by the rapidly developing society. Her anxiety began to ease, when courses from mobile apps filled the void. "The paid programs are suitable for people like me," she said.
Apart from restructured courses, users can purchase answers to tricky questions from mobile platforms. AskAboutAfrica, the first Q&A site focusing on African issues in China, gathers successful businesspeople, experts on African issues of all fields, and startup adventurers to provide insight and advice on business ventures in Africa. By giving a tip, users have quick answers provided to their questions. Hui Honglin, Founder of the site, says the platform is to help small and medium-sized enterprises setting foot in Africa by making experience and expertise reachable to them. These platforms are well received by some users, but the popularity arouses public debate on misleading consumers with the argument that they are actually exploiting people's anxiety. "If you don't want to be left behind, the only way is to keep pace with the times by learning new things quickly and efficiently" is a mantra quickly becoming popular among many people.
The public's anxiety reached a peak in April, when an article entitled Your Peers Are Abandoning You went viral online. It cited the case of Hu Weiwei, the 36-year-old founder of Mobike, one of China's popular shared bicycle apps, who cashed out her business for 1.5 billion yuan ($238 million). This is in stark contrast with the majority of her peers who were still struggling for a monthly salary of less than 10,000 yuan ($1,568).
Han Han, a young popular Chinese writer, criticized such articles and the practice of exploiting the public's anxiety, especially those for commercial gains. "Being successful does not necessarily mean being rich or powerful. Our behavior should be guided by fair conscience, not commercial hype," said Han.
In addition, some subscribers think the outcome of paying for knowledge may not meet their expectations. "During the course, I felt that the content was inspirational, but had no real impact on my growth," said Wang Mingfeng, who runs a WeChat official account. He paid some 5,000 yuan ($787.9) for courses on mobile apps. "The platforms should be accountable for screening contents to ensure a competitive service quality and maintain the market order," suggested Chen Liteng, an analyst who follows e-commerce trends. He added that the consumers should also ask themselves if they really need the services to improve their lives before buying the contents.