The World of WeChat
WeChat, the brainchild of Chinese tech giant Tencent, is the dominant digital player in Mainland China. It’s often referred to in the West as a social media app. But there’s nothing in any other country that’s comparable.
WeChat is not a social platform but a social ecosystem. It’s a “super app”, “Swiss army app”, “one app to rule them all”… you get the idea. It brings convenience to the next century as it captures endless functionalities in just one app.
Since its creation in 2011, WeChat has rapidly become the de facto messaging platform in China. Probably to be expected given that most platforms don’t make it past ‘The Great Firewall’ of China.
The app has managed to make itself inextricable to nearly all aspects of social, commercial and increasingly political life in China. And, this concentration throws up plenty of questions (and concerns) regarding privacy and data.
The Swiss Army App
WeChat has over one billion active users monthly, 90% of which are Chinese. Yes, that’s huge. Users in Mainland China could easily go weeks on end without ever needing to leave the platform.
And this is all courtesy of the fact that WeChat is the “Swiss Army Knife” of the app world. While WeChat’s core feature is messaging… what makes the app unique (and formidable) is that it captures every app functionality in one.
From ordering cabs, buying movie tickets, checking in for flights, listening to music, reading news, online and offline shopping, playing games, splitting the bill, paying your bills… WeChat’s features are seemingly endless.
Because they are.
While the app itself offers plenty of functions, the real game changer is its “mini programs” function. WeChat is designed in a way that allows other developers to slot their apps directly into its platform.
And, by co-opting Chinese equivalents into its social ecosystem, WeChat embeds a constant stream of new services and features onto its platform. To date, WeChat has the ability to connect to more than 3million other programs. And this sleek and unique operating system is the source of WeChat’s might.
New app developers get to take advantage of the strong network effect WeChat has as the defacto “everything” platform in China. Meanwhile… WeChat absorbs its competition while, simultaneously, offering their products to ensure WeChat users never need to leave. Clever.
WeChat, Data and Privacy
Or, should we say, lack of privacy…
These days it’s virtually impossible to function in Mainland China without WeChat. And so pretty much everyone in China is on it. Constantly. WeChat has 1 billion daily active users, accounts for 34% of total mobile data traffic, and its market penetration sits at a whopping 79%.
And this hyper-centralisation of data raises plenty of alarm bells in terms of where all of that data goes (and to what end) within ‘The Great Firewall’ state. Because the platform does very little – zero to be exact – to protect user privacy.
An Amnesty International 2016 report, on user privacy, scored WeChat zero out of 100 for its lack of freedom of speech protection and end-to-end encryption. To make the dismal number seem worse… Facebook scored 73. And Facebook hasn’t exactly been getting great media attention lately in terms of data protection.
Of course, it’s legally and politically difficult for WeChat to implement the golden standards for privacy courtesy of China’s strict regulatory control over the internet. Although, it’s probably safe to say that Tencent’s more than happy to comply – WeChat has been subsidised by the Chinese government ever since its creation.
All in all, the data WeChat generates creates a boon for the Chinese government – it could ultimately deliver a life map of nearly every citizen in China. And, in a country that’s riddled with censorship and guarded by a firewall, WeChat offers a powerful weapon for social control.
WeChat and the Surveillance State
As WeChat is part of almost every aspect of daily life in China, it merges the personal with the political apparatus of the state. The app is a messaging, news, and content platform, a mobile payment service, an e-commerce hub and… now?
A civil administrative centre.
Every Chinese citizen is issued an ID card. It functions a little like a domestic passport and is needed for any interaction with the state; at hospitals, booking trains, flying domestically, making bank transactions, you name it.
And citizens can now provide their WeChat account as a form of electronic social security ID. Not to mention, they can use it to manage pensions, pay taxes, and even file for divorce. With plenty more nifty tricks on the government’s radar.
WeChat and Data Centralisation
WeChat’s data centralisation makes it a cornerstone of the government’s new Social Credit System that is feted to appear nationwide in 2020. This new system is basically planned to incentivise good behaviour and punish those who are deemed “unconducive to the construction of a harmonious society”. Aka blacklisting.
Those who are blacklisted by the government are already banned from flying and purchasing high-speed rail tickets. But this could one day include plenty more avenues for barring, from purchasing items, entering certain venues, catching transport… if you’ve seen the ‘Nosedive’ episode on Black Mirror you get the gist.
And WeChat will be helping the government monitor citizen behaviour. Separating the trustworthy from the disobedient. People will be given a score out of 950 based on things like punctuality in paying back loans, past court orders and fines, purchase history, and even social networks – friends with high scores boost your own scores.
In fact, WeChat’s already testing a feature that shows users the “deadbeats” in their vicinity. A red circle sweeps out a radius on a map, dotted with clickable icons of anyone within 500 meters of the user who has failed to back a loan recently. It shows their national ID number and gives a little explanation on why they’re being named and shamed.
And so it begins – Society becomes a virtual prison.
Tech Companies Following WeChat’s Footsteps
But assuming you don’t live in China – you’re fine right? Well depends… you could draw plenty of similarities between the US military’s surveillance system PRISM and the Chinese government’s Golden Shield Project.
You know that other people are being censored but what are you being censored from? Okay ignore the rambling. But you never know…
Nonetheless! WeChat’s innovation sensations are catching on in the West. To name a big one – Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg is getting serious FOMO. And so, in a highly unoriginal move, industry giant Facebook plans to emulate WeChat.
This year Zuckerberg laid out a new direction for Facebook. It will shift focus from a sprawling series of social apps to a one-stop messaging service that combines everything the company has to offer – integrating Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, CoinPayments, along with plenty of new apps in their line of sight to develop.
And, if Zuckerberg follows through with the WeChat model grand plans, Facebook seems to be in line to get more user data. Not less. Not to mention Facebook is just one of many companies aspiring to be the next super-app.
And so, WeChat sets the stage for the future of tech and life. For better or worse.
Final Words (Of Warning)
Needless to say, ‘one app to rule them all’, with dubious privacy functions, containing masses of data from an entire citizenry, in a nation ruled by censorship… is a tad concerning.
But it also has a series of knock on effects for other countries. As companies seek to emulate the success that is WeChat, we as consumers will (in all likelihood) gladly join the pursuit of convenience.
But this hyper-convenience comes at the cost. Namely, hyper-centralisation of data… Who will have access to all this data? And to what end? As with any new piece of technology, we as consumers will have an important decision to make: How much is convenience worth?