While millions of people around the world are questioning whether they’ve given too much of their lives to Facebook, China’s WeChat is further down the track of being an all-in-one app. Already, it allows users to book doctor’s appointments and file police reports – and it will soon hold electronic IDs for millions of mainland Chinese.
New Zealand and China have parallel universes when it comes to social media, since Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Skype are currently blocked in China.
WeChat, or Weixin (微信) in Chinese, is one of the most popular social media platforms in China. WeChat is making its place worldwide, and now counts one billion monthly active users, according to its parent company Tencent. In 2016, the company launched its payment service in New Zealand.
So, what is WeChat? Is it just a Chinese version of Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp?
A short history of WeChat
2011: Early days
WeChat started as a mobile-messaging system in China in 2011, launched by conglomerate Tencent. At that time, it was only known by its Chinese name of Weixin, which literally means “micro-messaging”. Compared to today, the app had basic features and functions, including text messaging, voice clips, photo- and video-sharing, and a “find nearby users” function.
Weixin arrived on the scene a couple of years after competitor Sina Corporation had launched Chinese microblogging site Weibo (which literally translates to “micro-blog”), a Twitter-like platform. Unlike Weibo, Weixin is a mobile native, designed primarily for smartphone use, and is used for interpersonal communication rather than micro-blogging.
2012–2015: Rapid growth
In March 2012, Weixin hit 100 million users. A month later, Tencent picked an English name for it – WeChat – and opened up the app to brand accounts. This allowed companies to have a more direct connection with their Chinese customers. Media outlets, government agencies and celebrities also rushed to get WeChat public accounts.
WeChat has kept adding new features, including voice and video calls, and mobile payments via WeChat Wallet. In September 2013, vending machine companies started to incorporate cashless payments via WeChat’s Wallet, as well as Alibaba’s Alipay app.
In 2014, WeChat added taxi bookings, and then WeChat stores. The latter meant any business, big or small, could open a store inside a WeChat brand account.
In 2015, big brands dived into WeChat ads. These appear in individuals’ WeChat Moments feeds, where people can share, like and comment posts.
2017–today: China’s #1 app
More mini-apps were added to WeChat in 2017. These variously allowed users to book doctor’s appointments, file police reports, hold video conferences, and access bank services.
It’s little surprise that WeChat is now is the biggest mobile app in China. The app hit over 1 billion active daily users in February 2018, and Tencent ranked as the most valuable brand in the world behind the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook.
“WeChat is a competitor for ‘the Internet’ as we know it — a desktop, PC, browser-based experience.”
Jack Sheppard, business development manager, Skykiwi
WeChat: An app for everything
There’s an outdated view of Chinese companies being copycats. There may be no better example of that view being wrong than WeChat.
For the first few years of its development, WeChat was widely seen as a Chinese-style WhatsApp. However, it has gone far beyond that.
“WeChat is quickly replacing the internet. I think WeChat is a competitor for ‘the Internet’ as we know it – a desktop, PC, browser-based experience,” says Jack Sheppard, business development manager for Skykiwi.com, the largest Chinese-language media company in New Zealand.
“So I definitely think that in the past, China did follow and didn’t innovate too much. It is now completely the other way round.
“Chinese use WeChat on the bus, and to talk to their boss, to make meetings, to book a taxi, to book a movie; there are so many applications. And it really takes you from the offline world to the online world, because I think China is probably the only market in the world where QR codes are used.”
Despite the convenience, there are some downsides to being a WeChat user – at least in China.
WeChat has two servers, one for China-based people, and the other for those out of China. China’s government has tightened its censorship of politically sensitive material sent through WeChat. The Chinese phrase for “I oppose”; allusions to imperial rule; and satirical nicknames for President Xi Jinping such as “Winnie the Pooh” have all been blocked.
Posting images of text is a widespread netizen tactic for sharing content that contains sensitive keywords, but WeChat has started using optical character recognition (OCR) to filter images with text that contains sensitive words, according to Johannes Ullrich of the SANS Internet Storm Center.
The Chinese government has begun digitising China’s national ID card system. After trialling the technology in Nansha district in Guangzhou, it is working with WeChat owner Tencent to have digital ID cards rolled out across the country. The pilot was developed by the Ministry of Public Security and WeChat, and was backed by banks and government departments.
The new system will allow users to apply for an electronic ID using WeChat’s facial recognition feature. They will be able to use the WeChat ID to book hotels, flight and train tickets and carry out other tasks that require state-issued ID cards.
WeChat users in New Zealand
In New Zealand, WeChat has 180,000 monthly active users, according to digital agency UMS. That number swells with the waves of incoming Chinese travellers.
WeChat users in New Zealand can be grouped into four main categories:
- Chinese communities and travellers;
- Chinese-language media organisations and information providers (eg. SkyKiwi, TV33 and NZ Messenger);
- New Zealand government agencies (eg. the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing, Immigration New Zealand, Tourism New Zealand);
- corporates, advertisers and daigou personal shoppers (daigou is a Chinese phrase that means “buying on behalf of you”).
WeChat is now one of the most popular forms of social media used by visitors to New Zealand.
In 2017, more than 400,000 Chinese travellers visited New Zealand. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) forecasts Chinese tourist numbers are expected to increase to 913,000, spending $4.34b by 2023. MBIE has prepared a range of resources in advance of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, including guidelines for tourism businesses wanting to start a WeChat account.
In 2016, Tencent launched its payment services in New Zealand – and usage has grown rapidly since.
“More than 3,000 NZ-based businesses have opened WeChat payments and/or marketing services”, said Sean Zhao, managing director of PayPlus, which is among a handful of authorised service providers in New Zealand that offers both WeChat Pay and AliPay.
“The number was, and will be, doubled on a yearly basis,” he told the Asia Media Centre.
‘A digital manifestation of guanxi’
WeChat leverages personal connections, says Jack Sheppard, business development manager at Skykiwi.com.
The New Zealander lived in China for 10 years, working for a gaming firm and an airline company, among others. During his time in China, he became a self-described “power user” of WeChat and was struck by the dominance of the super app.
Now back in New Zealand, Sheppard says it is important for people who want to engage with China to “get onto WeChat, get familiar with it, download it, and start messaging”.
“Because WeChat really does leverage personal connections. Everything in China is related to trust, and related to guanxi, which is interpersonal connections. And WeChat is really a digital manifestation of that,” says Sheppard.
WeChat is a useful tool for New Zealand journalists in terms of accessing content relevant to Chinese people living in New Zealand, he says.
“There certainly is a language barrier there, because a lot of good content, like what Skykiwi posts on WeChat, is all in Chinese language. So you need to know a bit of Chinese to read that.”
But other sites, such as Kea New Zealand’s, are bilingual.
“There is some New Zealand-based English-language content on WeChat, and that is pertinent to journalists. But even more than that, the mainland Chinese WeChat accounts have some very good commentaries. I recommend Sixth Tone,” says Sheppard.
“So if you are a journalist who wants to know more about China, topics there, what people think about them, I think WeChat is the best tool to do that now.”
While privacy and censorship concerns are growing as WeChat’s power as an all-in-one app increases, Sheppard is also concerned about the blurred boundaries between work and life.
“Work doesn’t really turn off on WeChat. It is a powerful business tool, you can quickly hold on a meeting on WeChat just by leaving a stream of messages. I feel that quite often Chinese people send you a WeChat message and expect you to reply instantly.
“But for me coming from New Zealand, I am quite happy to leave that in my pocket and turn off all the notifications, and only check it when I want to.”
– Asia Media Centre