The dark side of a super app like WeChat
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Welcome back to China Report!
I know this is going to be a long week for all of you China watchers. New stories seem to be coming out every minute about the 20th Party Congress that started on Sunday. It’s probably why news of the banner protest in Beijing, which happened only five days ago, already feels antiquated at this point.
Over the weekend, I wrote about the digital aftermath of that protest: People—some who shared photos of the protest, others who didn’t know what they did wrong—found their accounts banned from WeChat. They were desperate—publicly begging Tencent, which owns the super app, to restore their accounts and apologizing for talking about the protest at all. If you want to know more about these “confession letters” and hear from users who got banned from WeChat, you can read my story here.
While I was writing it, though, I realized that one idea I take for granted might not be so intuitive for people outside China. Is a WeChat account really that valuable? Why is it so devastating when you can’t use one app?
The short answer: In China, your WeChat account forms almost the entirety of your social and digital lives.
One reason is that there simply aren’t many alternatives. Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal are all blocked. SMS messages are inundated with spam and service notifications. iMessages reach a small crowd, because only about 20% of smartphones in China are iPhones (compared with over 50% in the US). And email is basically nonexistent among the general population. No matter whether you are talking to a family member, a schoolmate, or a colleague, WeChat is the only way to go.
While it started out dominating one-on-one messaging and group chats, over time WeChat incorporated all the services you would want from the internet: digital payment, shopping, streaming, networking, ride-hailing … you name it, it’s probably there. In 2017, WeChat even launched in-app “mini programs,” which basically allow you to access non-Tencent services—like Airbnb, Weibo, and office tools—without ever leaving the platform. It’s a whole operating system within an app. Sounds quite convenient, no? But it means you are never leaving the app, period.
So losing a WeChat account means losing all of the above. As I wrote, it’s not easy to get your WeChat account back; it’s actually easier to regain access to these other services individually. But even then, you’re stuck rebuilding the social network you may have created over a decade on the app. “When I was adding contacts back, I was questioned if I was a scammer,” one banned user told me. Fixing these connections is arguably the hardest part.
But the impact of WeChat is not just personal. WeChat is so popular and so ubiquitous that it has influenced Chinese society as a whole.
Yiqin Fu, who studies political science at Stanford, tells me WeChat’s quest for a monopoly on content consumption has even shaped how knowledge creation in China works. Because people spend so many hours on WeChat every day, they often get the majority of their information from articles published in the app. But these articles are not indexed by Google-like search engines (a product decision by WeChat), meaning people are discouraged from searching for content outside the app and instead just passively consume what shows up on their timelines.
This also makes it hard to find articles published not even that long ago. To use Fu’s example, she could write a blog post in English and publish it on a website, where it would receive new views years after its publication, many via search. If the same content were published in Chinese and on WeChat, it would disappear from public attention after a few days. As a result, creators, including intellectuals, are incentivized to focus exclusively on content to be consumed at the moment—short, fragmental, surface-level takes.
The closed and comprehensive nature of the WeChat system is part of its secret sauce for commercial success. By keeping users trapped in a single app, WeChat makes it harder for challengers to threaten its own dominance. But this has also transformed WeChat into a dangerous tool to be wielded by those in power. The bans of users who talked about the protest in Beijing are a great example. By driving alternative communication platforms out of existence, WeChat made it easier for the government to police people’s speech through one central hub.
Could the same thing happen in the US? I think it would be difficult. WeChat emerged back in 2011, before norms were set for much of the internet in China. In the US today, it would take significantly more for an app, even one as well known as Twitter or Facebook, to successfully penetrate the many different markets WeChat did.
But that won’t stop companies from trying. Tech moguls like Elon Musk (surprise, surprise) often point to WeChat as a desirable vision for super apps. Yes, this kind of platform can make digital experiences more convenient for a lot of users. But the concentration of power can have many unintended, and often negative, consequences—at least for users. This is not a thought experiment; we are already witnessing it with WeChat. Proponents of the super app fantasy may say that things will be different when it’s in a democratic country. Sorry—I have to be more pessimistic than that.
How would you feel about using more super apps? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catch up with China
1. When activists in China talk about #MeToo, they say “” or #米兔 (which translates to “rice rabbit” but sounds like “me too”) to bypass online censors. That’s just one of many clever or funny puns used for evasive purposes. (Rest of World)
2. The first casualties of Biden’s new chip export control have emerged: the American citizens and permanent residents who work for Chinese chip companies. (Nikkei Asia $)
- There are at least 43 American citizens working as senior executives at 16 publicly listed Chinese semiconductor companies. (The Wall Street Journal $)
3. Chinese state researchers have suggested forming a pan-Asian digital currency to reduce the region’s dependence on the US dollar. (South China Morning Post $)
4. How a Chinese-American gangster made money-laundering “cheap, fast, and efficient” for Mexican drug cartels. (ProPublica)
5. Despite China’s crackdown on cryptocurrencies, the domestic crypto industry persists. There was even a 400-person web3 conference in August, with events dispersed in bars and restaurants all over the city of Dali. (Bloomberg $)
6. No more human influencers: Chinese brands are now paying virtual influencers for advertising. Apparently, they’re both ageless and more controllable. (Financial Times $)
7. Syrian refugees are asking for donations on TikTok livestreams, but the platform takes a big cut of the cash gifts—as much as 70%! (BBC)
8. China is delaying the release of its third-quarter GDP data as the country’s economic growth is expected to miss its annual target (5.5%). (Quartz)
Lost in translation
“Remote internships” in China are not what they sound like. As the Chinese publication Connecting reports, Chinese college students are paying as much as $20,000 to get fake internships, where they “work” as remote, unofficial assistants to employees of top companies, just to make their résumés look better. The whole industry is built on lies: the “supervisors” are often entry-level employees who aren’t allowed to have interns or share corporate documents, and the so-called interns are given made-up tasks that can’t actually improve their skills. But as the job market gets increasingly competitive in China, these students believe that just the name of a top company on their résumés could be a game-changer to secure better jobs. And they are willing to pay a hefty fee for it.
One more thing
As Chinese president Xi Jinping was making his two-hour-long speech on Sunday to commence the 20th Party Congress, so many WeChat users started sharing the speech’s livestream link to their timelines that WeChat was flooded with the same red rectangular previews on repeat. Other users, less enthusiastic about the event, created a different red rectangle—adapting a popular meme where an elderly man is squinting at his phone, looking disgusted.
See you next week (after the Party Congress)!