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Life on WeChat

Photo: Shooting selfies in Shanghai. Courtesy of Shutterstock

What China’s Mobile Revolution Means

The first thing David Yi does every morning when he wakes up is check WeChat.

He answers urgent messages, comments on people’s “moments,” and shares his own. Later, at the Shanghai office where he commands a staff of 50 for Kraft Heinz, he interacts with team members using WeChat group chats for various company functions—including strategic planning, marketing, and operations.

Yi is one of nearly 1 billion mostly rabid WeChat users, half of them in China. Owned by Shenzhen-based net giant Tencent, in Chinese the service is called Weixin, or micro letter. While it started primarily as a tool to communicate, it is now defining what’s possible anywhere with messaging and with mobile phones. WeChat has a powerful role in the Chinese economy. By the end of 2017, it is expected to be used by more than 79 percent of China’s smartphone users, according to eMarketer.

At lunchtime, Yi uses WeChat to order and pay for food deliveries. After work, Kraft Heinz’s general manager for e-commerce in China turns to the platform to buy movie tickets or make restaurant reservations. Before bed, he browses WeChat’s “mini-programs,” or apps that live inside the app. He hails taxis, handles utility bills, books flights, splits checks with friends, sends gifts, tracks fitness, and donates to charity—all with WeChat. “You can do almost anything you want on it,” says Yi, 33, who was born in Beijing, grew up in the United States, and has lived in Shanghai since 2010. “WeChat has become the default portal.  It’s like combining Facebook and WhatsApp and Twitter and Snapchat and YouTube all together. It’s a super app.” (Of course, he told me all this via WeChat’s voice call feature.)

The average user spends 66 minutes, or about a third of their daily mobile time, on WeChat, Tencent estimates. But it’s not too much to say some users live there. By the end of 2016, more than 30 percent of users were spending at least four hours a day on WeChat, twice the proportion of a year earlier.

In China, “if you’re not on WeChat, you’re cut off,” says Maria Repnikova, an expert on Chinese communications at Georgia State University. This technology’s entrenchment in Chinese society is so broad, so deep, and so complete that it’s difficult for non-users to even imagine. The super app’s all-in-one functionality means users seldom need—and perhaps seldom want—to exit the platform. It has become their most powerful resource and, for many, their greatest dependency.

Messaging is popular everywhere, but the big brands outside of China are all engaged in a furious game of imitation, trying to catch up to WeChat’s capabilities. There are two other Asian heavyweights, Korea’s KakaoTalk (in which Tencent is an investor) and Line, which dominates in Japan (though it is owned by Korea’s Naver Corporation). Kakao and Line each command about 85 percent of smartphone users in their respective home countries, and Line also is dominant in Taiwan and Thailand. These two Asian chat apps incorporate many features similar to WeChat, but don’t fully match it. Meanwhile, the two largest and most multinational messaging platforms in the world by far, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, have 1.3 billion global users apiece. Both of course are owned by Facebook. In a 2016 study by GlobalWebIndex, 37 and 33 percent of respondents worldwide, excluding China, reported using Messenger and WhatsApp, respectively, whereas 10 percent used Line, 6 percent used WeChat, and 3 percent used Kakao. For Americans with smartphones, a full 56 percent use Messenger, but it still offers less functionality than any of the Asian services. And WhatsApp remains relatively bare-bones.

WeChat itself started out as a copycat. Tencent aimed to develop a hybrid of WhatsApp and Facebook, but the shrewdly designed platform that resulted turned into a pioneer in its own right. Launched in 2011—about one year after WhatsApp and Kakao, and some months before Messenger—WeChat’s innovative apps-within-an-app model provides an experience that acts for users more like an operating system than an app. Tencent could accomplish this in part because WeChat, unlike Facebook, was built for mobile, rather than adapted from a PC-based model. In China, PCs never captured mass adoption. Smartphones have.

For William Bao Bean, an American investor who runs the Shanghai-based accelerator MOX, which focuses on mobile startups, WeChat is the weather vane for the whole industry. “If you want to see the future of Facebook, just look to WeChat,” he says. “The entire Facebook roadmap is a giant WeChat clone.” Messenger has already outfitted itself with money transfer, games, and numerous other extensions. WhatsApp will soon launch mobile payment services in India, among other improvements.

There are good reasons why smartphone functions have evolved differently in China. Users there prefer apps that combine as many features as possible into one platform, while Americans seem to like having plenty of options. Separate apps with singular functions ensure Americans have a lot to choose from, and they enjoy and expect that choice, says social media expert Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Individualistic and fickle Americans are uncomfortable with monopolies, she says. The Chinese, on the other hand, are a 1.3 billion-person “captive audience” in a closed, censored market. Here’s how North explains it: “They look for innovations within their ecosystem, not challenges to their ecosystem.” Chinese users want to be connected to their community, so only one option seems to matter. When one told us “WeChat is everything,” she might just as well have been talking about the Communist party. “It’s almost impossible to detach from this app,” says Georgia State’s Repnikova.

A smartphone break from shopping at a Beijing mall. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Asian culture itself may also be a useful lens for understanding such services. These communal societies focus on communicating in groups, achieving sense of self in relation to others, and preserving social harmony. So the one-app-fits-all approach may feel right. In Korea, Kakao plays a social role similar to WeChat in China. “If a person doesn’t use KakaoTalk, it’s difficult for him or her to communicate with other people,” says Allen Kim, a 21-year-old student in Seoul. Many Japanese feel similarly about Line. “Line is the popular app,” says Akina Egawa, 30, a project manager from Kagoshima. Shanghai investor Bean says WeChat itself functions, in a sense, communally. It may operate within a closed market. But it is itself quite open. Rather than shoulder the burden of developing its ever-expanding set of features, WeChat instead turns to third-party services in its community and integrates their work.

For Yehua Yang, a 33-year-old clothing designer who emigrated from Sichuan to New York City, WeChat is all about keeping in touch with family and friends back in China. “It’s the reason I have to put my phone on night mode when I go to sleep. Or else the alerts would kill me,” Yang jokes. Being a part of multiple group chats including 20 or more participants means she wakes up to hundreds of notifications every morning. But she likes it. “If I didn’t have WeChat I would feel disconnected from a big portion of the people in my life. It’s my only means of communication with them,” she says, adding that she’s pretty sure most of the Chinese diaspora would agree.

What might be more surprising is that Shanghai-based Yi feels the same way about keeping in touch with his staff at Kraft Heinz. “In China, nobody gives their phone numbers,” he says, explaining that contacts are typically saved on WeChat by scanning individuals’ QR codes. “There are people who work for me on a daily basis, and I don’t actually have their phone numbers. I just communicate with them on WeChat.”

Yi uses WeChat not only to talk work, but to do work. Much of his job involves building a corporate presence on the service to market the American company to a Chinese audience. He does this using official WeChat accounts. Consumers follow such accounts on WeChat, again, by scanning QR codes that are widely found on product packaging and websites. “WeChat is a basic requirement,” says Yi. “It’s where all the consumers are. A brand that wants to communicate with them has to use WeChat.”

Once a follower subscribes to a company’s account on WeChat, the possibilities for engagement are vast. Brands can provide customer support. They can push promotions, and even use geotargeting to provide alerts when consumers pass a brick-and-mortar storefront. Companies also frequently operate their own virtual stores, not unlike how they do on Tmall, operated by Tencent’s Chinese archrival Alibaba. WeChat estimates a third of all official accounts conduct some sort of e-commerce.

Nearly 80 percent of WeChat users follow official accounts, more than 30 percent shop on the platform, and about half of those who live in China have connected their bank accounts to it. (Tencent has put enormous effort into this to combat the even more gigantic market share of the Alipay service affiliated with Alibaba.) Consumers frequently use their “wallets” to pay offline too. The battle between the two industry leaders is fueling a transactional landscape that in some parts of China has become almost totally digital. More than 94 percent of users in Beijing and Shanghai say mobile wallets are the primary way they pay for everything, according to Tencent. McKinsey & Company calculates that in 2016 Chinese mobile pay transactions totaled $790 billion—11 times as much as in the U.S.

But all this convenient and efficient togetherness comes at a cost. Georgia State’s Repnikova, who directs the Center for Global Information Studies, says WeChat is “heavily surveilled.” She continues, “A lot of people talk about messages being deleted. There’s an assumption that nothing’s private.” WeChat’s own privacy policy basically admits as much. Repnikova points out that the service makes it easy for the government to keep tabs on all this behavioral data. But the worry does not seem to be shared by many Chinese. Says Yi: “This concern is almost nonexistent… In China, we know the Chinese government is already surveilling everyone.”

But since WeChat has global ambitions, the issue of security and surveillance will probably be a sticking point in many markets. And its super-app style is unlikely to dislodge the global dominance of Messenger or WhatsApp. On the other hand, even if Facebook’s brands were unbanned in China, they almost certainly wouldn’t make serious inroads against such an entrenched incumbent.

WeChat may not be headed for worldwide domination. But it will carry on greasing the wheels of the Chinese economy, and setting the pace globally for what’s possible on mobile.

Ann Babe writes about community, identity, and tech-enabled social change around the world. 

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