Zhang Lizhu waggles his smartphone in the air.
"Happiness is WeChat!" bellows Zhang, a 73 year-old retired head teacher, referring to China's immensely popular messaging app. With a toothy grin, Zhang prods his screen, prompting the phone to play a mildly irritating trance-pop song. It soundtracks a slideshow of photos of the other 14 senior citizens sharing the classroom in east Beijing's Huabeidong Community Service Centre. With every photo that rolls across his screen, Zhang's grin gets a little bigger.
Zhang's music doesn't cause much bother to the others. Most of them are loudly chatting or are engrossed in their own smartphones, which some are using to blare out their own rival tinny tunes. The atmosphere would be akin to that of a slightly rowdy high school class, if the average age of the pupils wasn't around 75.
Phones are not distractions prime for confiscating at Huabeidong, though, but rather the focus of weekly classes that take place at the center. Since last December, staff from the local government and students from the nearby Communication University of China have been holding seminars every Wednesday to teach seniors how to use smartphones to enhance their lives. There are around 60 seniors signed up to the classes, which are divided by ability into groups of around 15.
"Without learning how to use these things we will be abandoned by the times."
The seniors get tutored on everything from basic WeChat functions to complex online banking. They do spend a lot of time noisily larking about on photo apps today, but Shi Yan, the class organiser, explains that the lessons are fulfilling important needs.
"China has a huge population and that population is aging," says Shi. "In the past 30 years, since reform and opening up, there have been huge changes. Society has developed and now most people just don't live without smartphones. Some seniors can find it hard to catch up."
The rampant growth of WeChat in China has ensured that smartphones have ceased to be luxury items and have become close to essential in the country. By the end of 2015 the app had around 697 million users worldwide, with only around 70 million of those users based outside of China. With Facebook and Twitter blocked in China by the Communist government's Great Firewall, WeChat is as ubiquitous in the country as Twitter and Facebook are in the US.
The app's popularity has contributed to rocketing smartphone sales. According to statistics database website Statista there are around 563 million smartphone owners in China, with the figure expected to rise to around 688 million by 2019. The percentage of the Chinese population owning a smartphone is around 42 percent, with a report from the China Internet Network Information Center claiming that 90 percent of the country's 688 million internet users navigate the web using smartphones.
WeChat, meanwhile, has a messaging function similar to WhatsApp and a "moments" function that resembles Twitter; adding someone as a WeChat contact has all but replaced the act of exchanging phone numbers and business cards. Users can link their WeChat accounts to bank accounts to pay for utilities and pay at store counters by flashing their WeChat QR code on screen. Basically, if you are not on WeChat in China, you are completely detached from the country's most wide-reaching social and business networks.
"Without learning how to use these things we will be abandoned by the times," says Zheng Wenhua, 64, another class attendee. "Now I pay for all my utilities through WeChat. More and more medical services require WeChat to register with them these days, too."
For most Huabeidong class attendees the benefits of the sessions are far greater than simply being able to pay their gas bills without queuing. Although many Beijing families have their elderly parents living with them, playing active roles in raising grandchildren, many of the retired older members of the Huabeidong community live alone. Learning to use WeChat has let them build strong social structures that were previously absent in their lives.
"If it wasn't for WeChat I would just spend my days at the market, buying vegetables and going to the park," says Zhang, the retired head teacher. "My life has been enriched."
After learning to use WeChat group messaging Zhang joined chat groups comprised of former students with whom he had spent decades out of regular contact. "A few days ago I was ill and many of my ex-students sent me messages saying that my health was their happiness," he gushes. "It moved me a lot. Without a smartphone, WeChat and these classes I wouldn't have that communication. There is a WeChat group with 26 of us in it—we separated 44 years ago but are now back in touch. Life would be boring without my smartphone."
Class organiser Shi adds that one female senior, who was absent from class due to her daughter going into labor, used her new WeChat skills to set up a chat group for the friends she was sent to the countryside with during China's Cultural Revolution.
Most of the class attendees agree that they get the greatest amount of value from learning the most basic smartphone and app functions, such as how to use these chat groups. But is it really necessary to take a dedicated class to learn such straightforward skills?
Shi insists it is.
"Many of the attendees only had phones designed for seniors—they had big buttons to aid poor eyesight and only let you make and receive calls and text messages," she says. "After we started this class they became active in getting newer smartphones. Also, a lot of our seniors have bad memories. We need to keep reminding them how to use their skills, so we review those every week."
Pride within families and the pace of modern life in Beijing are common obstacles, too. "Most of the seniors don't want their children to teach them how to use smartphones because the latter tend to be very busy and impatient," says Shi. "The seniors often wonder why their kids can't be as patient as they were when they raised them."
Some of the seniors say they stick to using basic smartphone functions such as WeChat messaging, satellite-aided maps, and taxi-hailing apps to keep more connected to their families and friends and to stay safe. But others have really run with their new skills. Cui Baoguang, a 69-year-old retired rail industry worker, says that an app named Happy Mom and Dad is popular among his fellow smartphone classmates.
The app, designed for senior citizens, sends daily news bulletins to users featuring content that people of a certain age might appreciate. To demonstrate, Cui flicks through the app, showing me breaking news about the launch of a new walking frame. Not that sprightly Cui will be needing such products quite yet. "I go swimming once a week and exercise every day in the park," he says.
Cui is using WeChat to learn English—the Happy Mom and Dad app company provides a remote group teaching service, with instructors giving feedback on language skills using a voice messaging function. "Learning these things might help prevent me getting Alzheimer's," says Cui. "Life is richer for me after learning all this stuff. Without it we would get lonely when our children head off to work."
"Without it we would get lonely when our children head off to work."
A large part of the sense of community promoted by the classes comes from them simply physically taking place. Spending the afternoon with the seniors reveals that many of them have close bonds, and are developing new IRL friendships as well as using WeChat to rekindle old ones. A couple of the attendees even seem to have turned up purely for the company. "I've been drinking all day!" exclaims one gentleman with a strong liquor aroma on his breath, and who spends little time on his smartphone.
Class organizer Shi says that of around 2,000 communities comparable to Huabeidong in Beijing, only 30 have similar smartphone classes for senior residents. Some of the seniors present the day I visited had travelled from neighboring communities that don't have such classes, after reading reports about them. Shi hopes that authorities will see the success of classes such as hers and roll them out more widely, and eventually into rural communities, which tend to be far poorer than their urban counterparts.
"Development is still unbalanced between rural and urban places. Urban people have abandoned old-style phones but in the countryside they often don't have phones at all," says ex-head teacher Zhang. "I believe that as the economy develops, it won't be long before smartphones become more popular in rural places. Hopefully communication such as the type we have in this class will help them catch up, too."
The smartphone class scheme is seriously impressive. The friendly buzz of excitable conversation and electronic beeping in the classroom is testament to its success so far. To hammer the message of positivity home Cui whips out his phone once more and shows me an image he made using a photo manipulation app. It features a picture of class organizer Shi with the heads of five elderly classmates floating above her, all with huge grins.