The dark side of a great app like WeChat

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 which started on Sunday. This is probably why the news of the banner protest in Beijing, which took place only five days ago, already seems outdated at this point.

Over the weekend I wrote about the numerical consequences of this protest: People – some who shared photos of the protest, others who didn’t know what they had done wrong – had their accounts banned from WeChat. They were desperate – publicly begging Tencent, which owns the super app, to restore their accounts and apologizing for speaking out about the protest. If you want to know more about these “confession letters” and hear from users who have been banned from WeChat, you can read my story here.

As I was writing it, however, I realized that an idea I had taken for granted might not be so intuitive to people outside of China. Is a WeChat account really that valuable? Why is it so devastating when you can’t use just one app?

The short answer: In China, your WeChat account constitutes almost all of your social and digital life.

One reason is that there just aren’t many alternatives. Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal are all blocked. SMS messages are flooded with spam and service notifications. iMessages reach a small audience, as only around 20% of smartphones in China are iPhones (compared to over 50% in the US). And email is virtually non-existent in the general population. Whether you are talking to a family member, a classmate or a colleague, WeChat is the only solution.

While initially dominating one-to-one messaging and group chats, over time WeChat has integrated all the services you would want from the internet: digital payment, shopping, streaming, networking, carpooling… 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 complete operating system within an application. Sounds pretty handy, right? But that means you never leave the app, period.

So, losing a WeChat account means losing all of the above. As I wrote, it is not easy to recover your WeChat account; it is actually easier to regain access to these other services individually. But even then, you’re stuck rebuilding the social network you may have built for a decade on the app. “When adding contacts I was asked if I was a scammer,” one banned user told me. Repairing these connections is arguably the hardest part.

About Sandra A. Powell

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