Substituting the majority of forms of communication, interaction, entertainment, and other parts of everyday life, social media applications have become essential for most internet users. The rise of social media applications can be effortlessly justified by their numerous useful functions, ranging from basic communication technologies such as chatting to reaching unimaginably extensive audiences. Possibly the wide use of social media makes it fertile ground for various entities, such as companies, parties, or organizations. Not only do they use social media as a way to propagate their objectives or products, it further enables them to follow specific trends and tendencies of their audiences. It comes to no surprise then, that some of the social media applications can become politicized fairly easily, as they provide a way to not only reach wide audiences and follow their behaviour, but they also enable them to gather information about users, their preferences or in worst cases, even influence and shape their ways of life.
Given the geopolitical context, it is not startling that China would aim to develop its alternative to the predominantly Western social media. In the uncompetitive environment, caused mainly by the ban on some of the Western media in China, Wechat, as an equivalent to Western social media, had a relatively easy journey to the peak of its success. Underlined and enabled by the general support of the Chinese Central Government, the application has become an inseparable part of regular Chinese life. However, the seemingly innocent application entails many problematic and controversial aspects. This essay will aim to analyze various features of the application, focusing mainly on the way the application functions, and the trouble of political, ethical, and security implications, relating to both the domestic and foreign use of Wechat.
The essay will proceed as follows. It will first introduce the basic functions of Wechat and its origins. The second part will deal with the app creators. Third, the essay will consider the problematic aspects of the application, examining the government connection, regulations, and handling of the data, with regard to impacts on the foreign users. The last, concluding section will discuss the wider political and security context and further finishing remarks.
Functions of Wechat
One of the greatest advantages Wechat dispenses is the inclusiveness of a broad variety of functions. Some of the most popular Western social media applications seem to each be focused on a particular purpose, such as Instagram being based on mainly visual content sharing or Facebook centering around the textual subject matter. Despite some of their functions overlapping, the users of the two aforementioned applications seem to be using the programs either simultaneously, but each for different types of interaction, or are active on only one of them. The divide of users becomes even deepened by further applications, such as Snapchat, which not only limits the interaction to purely visual content sharing but also seems to be targeting only a specific group of users, mostly falling within a similar age group. Even though some of the applications can be generally merged via their creators or owners, the overall trend shows that most of the applications seem to have a clear-cut purpose and utility for their users.
WeChat, on the other hand, provides its users with the maximum amount of convenience reflected in the universal and all-covering types of functions, virtually becoming an “app for everything” or “super app”. This makes the social network not only more advanced but more importantly more powerful than any other application. The possibilities are endless. The prime and original function of Wechat lies in its messaging and calling function, allowing its users to exchange messages and calls, all free of charge. The messages and calls are, moreover, not limited to the location, as they can be exchanged even outside the territory of China. The users are similarly provided with a basic feed page, where they can share various, both visual and textual content, as well as view content posted by others. Second, a similarly significant function is localization, allowing the users to view and share their location. To make the interaction between users even easier, Wechat provides the search function for scanning QR codes, to allow the users to become even more interconnected. While these core activities of the application seem to be similar to some of the Western equivalents, Wechat becomes distinct with functions like Hongbaos, substituting the cultural tradition of exchanging “red envelopes” with money during special occasions (Chinese New Year, weddings, etc.) Wechat also grants its users an E-wallet system, where money can be transferred or stored, both individually and in groups.
The financial functions of Wechat are exceeding all standards of most social networks. Logically connected to the E-wallet system, Wechat introduces the WeChat Pay function, allowing the user to complete swift payments through their smartphones, either by scanning QR code, Quick Pay system, In-App native, or the web-based payment method. Additionally, WeChat allows you to connect your bank card, take a loan (up to 300 000 RMB), or even pay the bills for housing utilities. Access to public services, such as weather forecasts, is nothing new to social networks, yet Wechat takes it another step further, allowing its users to make medical reservations, book rail or flight tickets, hotels, cinema tickets, or even review flash sales and real estate agencies“ offers. This enumeration only lists the “basic” functions for regular users, but Wechat also focuses on features for companies, with different mini-programs, marketing possibilities, or even paywall establishments.
A feature that deserves a significant amount of attention originates from the recent COVID-19 pandemic, where to this day, one of WeChat’s mini-programs enables the users to apply for the Health Code. The code operates as a key resource for tracking and containing COVID-19 cases, using mainly the localization function to monitor the interactions and risks of the virus transmissions. The connection between a social media network and the medical state of its users becomes a unique trait of Wechat.
And while a descriptive overview of the list of diverse features of Wechat might demonstrate the bright sides of the application, as it affords the user with maximum level of convenience of having everything in one place, the fundamental danger arises from the same reason. Pondering on the seeming centralization of features in one application motivates the question of to whose hands all the functions fall. In other words, who stands behind Wechat, and who controls it?
Problematic Aspects of Wechat
Government Links to Wechat
Given the fact that Wechat originates from and operates under an authoritarian political system with a unitary political leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), examining how the Chinese government influences and regulates the application is more than rational. The government dominates all the legislative, executive, judicial, and other administrative and supervisory branches of the state, which would mean that Wechat would fall directly under its competencies. Despite the private ownership of Wechat by Tencent, the company is far from being free to do as it pleases. It is not difficult to find signs of government regulation of Wechat, most visibly in WeChat´s User Policy. Located already in the 10th section is the “Request from Governmental Authorities”, which states that such requests will be treated following the “Law Enforcement Data Request Guidelines” and “Governmental Request Policy.” And exploring the two documents uncovers various ways the Government uses to regulate the activities of Wechat users – or in other words, the majority of the Chinese population.
The first document, the “Law Enforcement Data Request Guidelines” consists of general statements like “We provide non-public customer information in response to law enforcement requests when legally required to do so.” And goes on to name the types of requests it answers to, which are for instance preservation requests, emergency requests, or legal process requests, which are specified as “… valid search warrants and subpoenas and other valid legal processes, or valid Requests made under applicable mutual legal assistance arrangements and channels.” Providing the document with a slightly menacing tone is that Wechat only “…may notify the relevant user about any Requests for their data…” The second document, the “Governmental Request Policy” states “We aim to apply this Policy consistently and fairly across all jurisdictions where we operate, subject to all applicable laws and regulations and our interpretation of potential differences between jurisdictions.” Despite the general broadness of all the various statements, this quote in a way shows a glimpse of hope for international users of Wechat, meaning they can be protected by their domestic jurisdiction when it comes to sharing the Wechat user information and activity in various governmental requests. Chinese jurisdiction and legal provisions, on the other hand, might not be as congenial.
The fundamental jurisdiction applicable to Wechat operations in China is the Chinese Cybersecurity Law, enacted in 2016. Consisting of various thought-provoking sections and articles, the law is a part of a series of different laws passed by the Chinese government to build up national security legislation. Recognized as a “basic law” it is placed at the very peak of all the national legislation on cybersecurity. The law in principle functions as a requirement for the network to store select data within China and permits the Chinese authorities to conduct and supervise “spot-checks” on the various network operations of the specific company – in this case, Tencent operations in Wechat. Such efforts could be easily dated back to the year 2010, when the Chinese government issued the White Paper on the Internet in China, which stated, that “within Chinese territory, the internet is under the sovereignty of China.” The relatively new Cybersecurity Law follows the lead and highlights various controversial features, such as when Article 9 states that “network operators … must obey social norms and commercial ethics, be honest and credible, perform obligations to protect network security, accept supervision from the government and public, and bear social responsibility.” And possibly the vagueness of the formulation is what exactly serves as a major threat to the user of the network, because the Cybersecurity Law, along with the various Government Request Policies of Wechat, can be bent and interpreted in endless ways, threatening the user with the possibility, that his activity and data provided in the application might be used against him, even without his knowledge.
The various legislative underpinnings reflect specific rules and restrictions surrounding the activities of Wechat users. Apart from the classic ban on engaging with sexually suggestive, violent, discriminative, or gambling content, infringement of spreading false information, counterfeit, and countless other prohibitions, which are typical in almost all social media networks, Wechat imposes politically motivated bans and limitations as well. It has been observed in many instances, that Wechat censors or deletes messages related to controversial political topics. For accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers, Wechat operates with keyword and image censorship, where before the sent message reaches the receiver, it passes through a server managed by Tencent, which monitors the “blacklisted” keywords. Moreover, as previously mentioned, in case the message gets censored both the sender and receiver are not notified about it. The list of censored keywords consists of hundreds of various terms, phrases, or different combinations of words. The least surprising are various combinations mentioning the Communist Party of China, such as “Down with CPC”, “Destroy CPC”, “Quit CPC” or “Reveal CPC”. The title of the book “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” is included in the list, as it allegedly inspired millions of people to quit the Chinese Communist Party. The name of the manifesto signed by Chinese dissident intellectuals and human rights activists – the “Charter 08” is also censored by Wechat. Naturally, also variations of mentions of the Tiananmen Massacre are included – “Tiananmen Tank”, “Tiananmen Murder” or “Tiananmen Student Strike”. Other honorable mentions are “Free Tibet”, “Taiwan + Voice Support” and “Hong Kong Independence”. Overall, more keywords are censored in group chats, which can reach wider audiences.
In the last year, WeChat has been notorious for censoring messages related to the pandemic of COVID-19. Aiming to control the way the health crisis was portrayed and discussed among Chinese citizens, more than 2000 new keywords related to the pandemic have been banned on WeChat. Wechat blocked phrases about Li Wenliang, mentions of international institutions like the World Health Organization, or the outbreaks in other countries. Interestingly, the majority of blacklisted terms related to international relations were about the United States. This could be explained by different factors, but what deserves attention is the currently widespread Chinese conspiracy theory, about the United States purposefully selling the COVID-19 vaccines to China at unaffordably high prices. In general, such tendencies reflect the overall problematic nature of relations between China and the United States.
Foreign Users of Wechat
As mentioned earlier, Wechat does not only operate in China. The conventional principle of the “One App, Two Systems” model of censorship, creates a slightly different environment and experience for the users of the Weixin version for mainland users, and WeChat International for overseas users. The key difference is that a China-registered account is connected with a mainland Chinese phone number, while a non-China-registered account is connected with a phone number from any other country of origin. And while the China-registered accounts are under the control of Chinese jurisdiction and the aforementioned censorship and filtration, the non-China registered users (for example Chinese diaspora) are not. Yet, the latest study conducted by Citizen Lab showed that interactions between non-China registered users might not be fully censored but still politically surveilled. Citizen Lab used two different chat conversations of a non-China registered account, the first conversation with a non-China registered account, set to trigger possible political surveillance and the second with a China-registered account to measure changes in censorship. In both conversations, the non-China registered account engaged in sending politically sensitive content. The two variables of sending politically sensitive content in the first conversation and the amount of censorship in the second conversation turned out to be positively correlated, meaning the more politically sensitive content the first conversation included, the more censored messages with the China-registered account appeared. Such a trend indicates political surveillance even over the non-China registered accounts. The Citizen Lab experiment only worked with images and documents, unable to tell whether chat message text is surveilled as well, nor did it reveal whether the international Wechat user information is shared with the Chinese government. But it demonstrated that the non-China registered user content is utilized to train and strengthen the censorship system of Wechat for China-registered users.
Primary non-China registered users of WeChat are the members of Chinese diaspora communities, living in different parts of the world. Understandably, Wechat is the easiest way for them to communicate with one another, mainly because while only some of the immigrants use other applications like Whatsapp or Telegram, virtually all of them have and are familiar with WeChat. Natural congregations on Wechat are in many cases leading to exclusive communication through the application only. Necessary to keep in mind that WeChat is not only a communication application, but it further entails a wide range of diverse activities. For the Chinese diaspora, WeChat often works as a source of news and information, not only about China. In Australia, 60% of polled Mandarin speakers indicated WeChat as their primary source to obtain information and news, and only 23% regularly accessed news from common Australian media. The tangible danger comes from the natural creation and inclination towards such echo chambers, in other words, towards a specific type of information only, heavily influenced by the interconnectedness between the users of Weixin and the sister app WeChat International, by the political surveillance and censorship.
Political Context in International Relations
While the previous section uncovered some of the problematic aspects of WeChat itself, which endanger its users, it is necessary to view its impact in the wider context of the political environment. Namely, the ways WeChat serves as a propaganda tool for Chinese interests abroad. The fact that WeChat manages and controls the type of information and content that is spread on the application gives China major ground for publicity and self-promotion. While there is strict homeland censorship and filtration of virtually all types of content (text messages, as well as documents and visuals), the overseas sister app users are less restricted, yet still under careful surveillance. Overall, it could be easily asserted that WeChat enables China to shape its image and perception abroad because it influences the type of content that is shared on the network. Moreover, it often limits the mentioning of negative findings and remarks, aimed against the Chinese government and regime.
Moreover, it is not only about the content, but the overall impression WeChat supplies to China. The application exceeds almost all expectations of a typical social media application. Not only does it enable the users to communicate with one another, but it has become inseparable from the lives of many, as it enables them to conduct some of the most basic, but also more complex operations. In China, being inactive or disconnected from WeChat means being unplugged from the rest of the world. Given the tally of all the various functions and types of mini-apps in WeChat listed in the first section of this study, the application is one of the many Chinese high-tech developments. Compared to its western counterparts, WeChat is much more progressive and inclusive, even though it in many cases comes at the cost of sacrificing personal freedoms and rights.
WeChat´s presence abroad should also be viewed in the context of the continuously increasing Chinese soft power. Chinese soft power has been discussed from various angles, mainly in connection with its economic capabilities and extensive diplomatic reach. While in many instances, China has been argued to be involved in more sharp international policies, such as in financing Confucian Institutes abroad or the Belt and Road Initiative, WeChat could be considered as part of a soft “charm offensive” type of policy. The Chinese “charm offensive” has possibly lost some of its momentum in the past year, mainly in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak and the original concealing of the information about the real extent of the epidemic. On the other hand, China excels in “mask diplomacy” and always manages to somehow repair and boost its image as a responsible global leader. In this way, WeChat can be viewed as a part of the Chinese purposeful attempt at building its prestigious reputation abroad.
WeChat or the official version of Weixin have become a way of Chinese living. Abroad, WeChat has become a major source of information, as well as a major source of Chinese reputation building and impression making. Yet, both versions of WeChat are underlined by a certain level of political manipulation, surveillance, and censorship. In China, as WeChat allows its user to conduct most of the basic daily activities and interactions, it is highly unlikely that its influence will decrease any time soon. What is more, as long as WeChat will operate in close cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party and government, it will, either naturally or artificially, maintain its prime position among all other alternative networks. The popularity of WeChat in China is heavily influenced by the favour of the Chinese government, yet, abroad, WeChat´s popularity depends mainly on its users or how local authorities allow or disable its use. Reviewing all the dangers, both actual and potential that await the international user on WeChat, ranging from misuse of personal data and information to the threat of becoming stranded in an echo chamber reflecting only pro-Chinese-regime opinions, demonstrates how alarming the situation is. Unlike in China, the legal and governmental authorities in the various countries abroad have the powers and capabilities to extend the protection of their citizens in applications like WeChat. And while some political figures have already voiced their concern over WeChat and other Chinese applications, their popularity has not decreased as a result. On the contrary, WeChat seems to be on track with its continuous development and progress, providing its users with an increasing number of convenient and revolutionary functions. Perhaps applications like WeChat deserve more attention than ever, not only for their capacities but mainly for their role in the wider political context. Is it only about censoring unwanted information, or is it rather about spreading intended impressions? This and many other questions related to WeChat and other Chinese applications remain unanswered but provide fertile ground for further research.
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Written by Daniela Monsportová