The Middle Kingdom is no stranger to innovation. In the past, China’s “Four Great Inventions” (paper, the compass, printing, and gunpowder) revolutionized the medieval world. Today, China’s most dynamic and popular social media platform is doing the same thing in the digital age. Welcome to WeChat: the greatest app you’ve probably never heard of.
First launched in 2011 by the Chinese tech giant Tencent, WeChat is the Swiss Army knife of apps, combining the functions of WhatsApp, Facebook, Venmo, and Skype all in one. With a userbase of nearly 1 billion people, WeChat is an indispensable everyday tool for living in China. Indeed, in China, admitting to not having a WeChat account may cause people to look at you as though you are some kind of prehistoric cave person with no need for fancy new inventions such as “fire” or “the wheel”.
While WeChat still hasn’t caught on outside of China, getting yourself a WeChat account during your visit can make your experience easier and more convenient and will help you stay in touch with friends you meet along the way while giving you insight into the ways that Chinese tech is shaping the modern world.
Alright, so what exactly can WeChat do?
WeChat began life as a simple messaging app, allowing people to communicate with each other individually or in groups. In a country where Facebook and its messaging function have been blocked since 2009, WeChat is one of the preferred methods of communication for Chinese people in their personal and professional lives. In addition to basic text and voice messages, users can use WeChat to send photos, files, pin locations, and recommend contacts to their friends. Because of the popularity and utility of the app’s messaging function, adding someone on WeChat after meeting for the first time has largely replaced exchanging business cards or phone numbers as a polite (but non-committal) social gesture.
Additionally, WeChat stickers add some flair and levity to the conversation. These pictures or animated gifs are widely shared to express emotion and a skilled WeChatter can find the appropriate sticker for every occasion. Some stickers are produced by professional animators and released in sets for download or are simply created by users. Cultivating an expressive and extensive sticker collection is a popular pastime and point of pride for many WeChat users.
Combining elements of Facebook and Instagram, WeChat Moments allow users to post pictures and text to their “wall” to be viewed by their WeChat contacts. Prolific posters can use the Moments function to show off their latest purchase from Taobao (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon), their envy-inducing travel photos, or their latest and most obnoxious selfies. Moments are also a popular way to spread the word about events happening around town or simply share the latest viral videos.
However, WeChat’s Moments function differs from Facebook in several key ways. First, it’s a bit more private. You will only be able to see what your friends post and you only be able to see if someone has “liked” a post if they are your friend. Secondly, it’s more people oriented. Companies and organizations are not able to post Moments which means your feed won’t be inundated with advertisements unless your friends are taking the initiative to post them themselves. WeChat does have an “official account” function which allows you to follow various organizations, but it’s separate from Moments.
Okay, so far WeChat sounds convenient, but not revolutionary. So why all the hype? Well, get ready because WeChat Pay is app’s true gamechanger. With WeChat pay, users can pay for goods and services and transfer money to their friends instantly using their smartphone. The real kicker is that you can use WeChat pay almost anywhere in China.
That’s right, almost EVERYBODY accepts WeChat payments. In fact, WeChat Pay is so universal in China, that visitors have reported meeting rural rice farmers who, although they didn’t have indoor plumbing, happily accepted WeChat Pay for their crops. Likewise, many city-dwellers regularly pay their utility bills and even their rent using WeChat’s payment function.
The bad news is that as a short-term visitor without a Chinese bank account, you won’t be able to link your foreign debit card to your WeChat account for easy payment. But even if you’re not able to make use of WeChat pay function yourself, it’s fascinating to observe the way that WeChat and other Chinese firms are blazing trails in the brave new world of mobile payment.
As if these other nifty bells and whistles weren’t enough, WeChat still has one more surprise up its sleeve. You can use your WeChat account to make easy voice and video calls (including group calls) to any of your WeChat friends. The remarkably simple video chat interface takes the hassle out of making reasonably high-quality calls to friends and family around the world. Some expats even prefer it to Skype as a way of staying connected to friends and loved ones who live an ocean or more away.
Overall, WeChat is an excellent app with a lot to offer. However, some people have expressed concern about the amount of access that the Chinese government has to information you send over the platform. The runaway success of WeChat and its parent company Tencent has come at the cost of complying with government imposed censorship laws and being subject to Communist Party scrutiny. In some instances, Tencent has blocked individual messages containing “sensitive phrases” from being transmitted between users. As of 2017, managers of WeChat groups are also legally responsible for the content posted by other group members with several Chinese nationals having been prosecuted for content deemed “seditious”.
This all might sound a bit scary, it shouldn’t put you off using WeChat altogether. While foreign visitors to China should exercise basic common sense when using the platform, you are extremely unlikely to encounter any issues related to your WeChat use, especially considering tens of thousands of expats use WeChat on a daily basis without incident. In short, should you use WeChat to send people your social security number or plot to undermine the Chinese government? No. Is WeChat safe for normal everyday use? Absolutely.
*Update: As of January 2019, the University of California system had advised students traveling to China to refrain from using messaging apps such as WeChat or WhatsApp for fear that the use of such apps may be used as an excuse for to deny departure to visiting foreigners. These concerns appear to be based on the case of Paul Whelan, an American citizen arrested in Russia on suspicion of espionage. In Whelan's case, his use of WhatsApp appears to have been one of several factors which prompted Russian authorities to bring charges against him. Alpha Exchange wishes to emphasize that Whelan's case has no direct relation to either China or WeChat and that hundreds of thousands of non-Chinese nationals use WeChat on a daily basis without incident. So far, no other university has issued a similar guideline to those published by the UC system. It is our considered opinion that WeChat and all other commonly used social messaging apps remain completely safe to use in China.
WeChat is a fun and useful tool for first time visitors and old China hands alike. It’s easy to use interface, plethora of interesting features, and usefulness in everyday life have already endeared it to millions of Chinese and foreign users. WeChat has also pretty much singlehandedly sparked the mobile payment revolution leaving companies like Apple and Microsoft scrambling to come up with a similar capability for their devices. Travelers can use WeChat to cement new friendships, stay connected to family members abroad, and to gain a better understanding of the ways that Chinese innovation is impacting the world.
For those looking to give it a try, WeChat can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or Google Play and can be set up within a few minutes.