WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app is an integral part of Chinese contemporary culture. The app has over 800 million active users, 90% being Chinese, and is used to conduct virtually every sort of transaction imaginable in China.
The app is also highly censored and heavily monitored by the Chinese Central Government.
I first came across WeChat while researching what essential apps I needed to download before studying in Shanghai for a semester. Amongst useful dictionary apps and metro guides, the website China Highlights proclaims that WeChat is ‘the most popular messaging service in China’ and is a great way to keep in touch with people. The unwritten downside of the app being, that in using it, I would end up feeling like I was surrendering some form of privacy as well as self-censoring my speech.
Not really having any misgivings at the time, I downloaded WeChat and a few weeks later arrived in China. Almost immediately I realised the website had completely undersold the popularity and versatility of this app.
WeChat is an all-in-one platform for messaging, sharing photos, posting status updates and subscribing to newsfeeds. WeChat also functions as an e-wallet. You can use it to purchase movie tickets, transport, send money to your friends or even scan QR codes to pay vendors directly instead of using cash or card.
During my time in Shanghai, I used WeChat to split bills with friends, pay for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and to keep up to date with local and international news.
I used the app to communicate with my friends and my teachers. It was also a great way for me to connect with Chinese and other foreign students who were more comfortable and confident communicating via a messaging app than in person.
Although I was in Shanghai to help improve my Mandarin, I found myself using the app’s translation function fairly regularly to help interpret various notices sent to me by the university.
While using the app, part of me was a bit disturbed by my heavy reliance on the service because of WeChat’s biggest drawback: it’s censorship.
It is no secret that the internet in China is heavily monitored and censored. Websites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked – a big part of the reason why WeChat has grown to be so dominant in China.
Private WeChat messages containing controversial phrases, including ‘Free Tibet’, ‘1989 Tiananmen Square’ or ‘Falun Gong’, are intercepted and then blocked, with no notification to the user. This is especially the case in group chats, where the government monitors for any gathering on online turning into a protest on the streets.
Unlike Facebook, where users can add basically anyone as contacts, see mutual friends and create groups with thousands of members with relative ease, WeChat requires a person’s phone number, QR code or unique user ID to add them into your contacts. There is a 500-person cap on the number of participants in group chats.
These measures make life a whole lot more difficult if you’re an activist wanting to organise a million-person protest movement across the country.
Though I wasn’t particularly desperate to start a political movement, or motivated to promote discussion about controversial issues, I still couldn’t shake off the feeling of discomfort while using WeChat to message people. It’s disheartening to be in a university environment, communicating with people from China and across the globe, using a platform that is fundamentally restrictive about certain topics and ideas.
What’s more disconcerting, is that the censorship of WeChat messages isn’t exclusive to China. Anyone who initially sets up the app with a Chinese mobile number is susceptible to censorship overseas, a fact I only became aware of after returning home to Australia.
I still use WeChat to communicate with friends in China and elsewhere.. For many of my friends, it is the only social media platform they use. Regardless of the feelings one may have about using a censored service, the prevalence and usefulness of WeChat is such that it’s almost impossible to function without it.
Inevitably it seems people will always choose a highly restrictive, but highly effective social media platform over none at all.