SHANGHAI—It takes just six characters to spell “everything” in China, and Mandarin fluency isn’t required. The far-more-than-messaging app WeChat dominates the mobile Web here.
That’s been very good for WeChat developer Tencent Holdings, which in March revealed that this iOS and Android app, which has made online and real-world commerce vastly easier in China, had attracted more than a billion users.
But Tencent still has to play by the Chinese government’s rules, and Western human rights advocates have found little promise in WeChat’s rise.
The app that is everything
To get a sense of what WeChat can do, skip downloading the version of the app Tencent offers in U.S. versions of Apple’s iOS App Store and Google’s Android Play Store. They barely qualify for feature parity with Apple’s Messages, or Facebook’s Messenger or WhatsApp: You can set up a profile; text with friends, livening up the conversation with photos, stickers, and real-time location; and follow public accounts.
Instead, talk to WeChat users in China, where the app is “not just a chat software; it’s a lifestyle,” James Sung, founder of Shenzhen-based Zocus Strategic Marketing, tells me via WeChat message. “It’s where I met my wife. It’s where I pay my utility bills. My company group chat is on it.”
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WeChat’s offline utility is key to its success, Sung says. “You can book a plane ticket, rent a car, rent a bike, have food delivered—all on WeChat. It’s possible to pay for everything on WeChat,” he wrote—via, of course, WeChat. “It’s replaced the tip jar, with people wearing pictures of their payment-receiving QR code. It’s used at vending machines and to open doors at manless 24-hour convenience stores.”
WeChat also opens immense marketing opportunities. “I don’t even do traditional advertising anymore,” Sung says. “I can send a blast out to my network and reach over 100,000 people with a few clicks.”
Another local entrepreneur shared the same assessment. Yan Cai, managing director of the Hong Kong and Shenzhen firm SoundMaster Technology, explained in an email that his firm uses WeChat both as a communications channel and as a storefront. He also ticked off his own daily WeChat habits: “business and private communication, social (like Facebook), gaining news, and paying for different things with the WeChat e-wallet.”
(Disclosure: I went to Shanghai to cover the CES Asia trade show, where I helped emcee a gadget competition that included Cai’s firm; the Consumer Technology Association, host of that convention, covered most of my travel expenses.)
Ben Thompson, the analyst who writes the technology and media industry newsletter Stratechery, phrased things more directly in an article last May: “For all intents and purposes, WeChat is your phone, and to a far greater extent in China than anywhere else, your phone is everything.”
WeChat makes all of Facebook and Apple’s attempts to cram payment and shopping functions into Messages and Messenger, respectively, look like farm team workouts.
WeChat is not like other messaging apps
Tencent’s triumph—the realization of the walled-garden ambitions of so many other messaging platforms—has come with only-in-China costs.
My first warning came when I tried signing up with the Google Voice user that has sufficed to set up an account on every other messaging platform I’ve used lately, from WhatsApp to Signal. The app complained of a “suspicious registration” every single time, and I eventually gave up and registered with my real mobile number.
Fortunately, that does not seem to have resulted in an increase in text message spam or robocalls beyond their already-obnoxious levels. But Chinese users face more serious issues.
“It’s hard to think of a messaging/chat platform with worse security,” e-mailed Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “They do not use end-to-end encryption, apparently in any form. Chinese users have been jailed repeatedly for content and interactions that have taken place on WeChat.”
WeChat’s English-language help touts end-to-server encryption—”third parties cannot snoop on your messages as they are being delivered over the Internet”—as well as permanent deletion of messages stored on its server, once delivered to recipients. But that language, along with a blanket denial that WeChat messages are “data-mined for commercial purposes,” doesn’t rule out bulk government collection of messages.
Tencent did not respond to invitations to comment on those critiques.
An October 2016 report by Amnesty International gave Tencent a score of 0 out of 100, dead last among 11 messaging providers surveyed, for a lack of security or transparency.
A July 2015 study by CitizenLab found that WeChat routinely blocked references to the June 4, 1989, massacre in Tiananmen Square, or to the Falun Gong religious sect, or to posts touting rumors or disinformation.
And a 2018 Ranking Digital Rights report gave Tencent a 23 percent score for disclosure of its policies and practices—terrible overall, though ahead of its Chinese competitor Baidu and its dismal score of 17 percent.
“Here in China, we assume the government is monitoring everything anyways, and we accept it,” Sung wrote in our WeChat conversation. “For those of us who have nothing to hide, we almost assume the government can access our WeChat records and really don’t care.”
He added: “I feel safer in China than I do in the U.S. on a daily basis.”
Besides, Chinese users don’t have great alternatives to WeChat. CDT’s Hall noted, for example, that Signal’s losing access to “domain fronting” services from Google and Amazon will make it easier to block an end-to-end-encrypted communications app that’s already tricky to install.
And with Google’s Play Store off-limits in China, and Apple’s App Store subject to Beijing’s veto—as seen in last summer’s removal of VPN apps from the Chinese store—it looks like Chinese users won’t be moving out of WeChat’s walled garden anytime soon. Which means that Westerners looking to do business in the People’s Republic will have to get used to living in WeChat’s world too.