WeChat is not just a cheap way to chat with friends, but is also used to exchange information during crises —such as the Sichuan earthquake in April — and to document and investigate injustices and instances of official corruption.
China’s version of Whatsapp offers a free, popular way to communicate—but how much longer can the service remain free of costs and censorship? RNW spoke with WeChat employees about their fears and expectations for the future of China’s hippest new start-up.
WeChat is like Skype, Whatsapp and Facebook all wrapped into one app. And, in true Asian tech fashion, it features some really fun emoticons to boot. Released in January 2011, WeChat has already attracted over 300 million users. They use it to chat with coworkers, share pictures and even find one-night stands. But WeChat is no longer just fun and games, now that media are using it as a new distribution platform.
Just like normal users, accredited media can open public accounts and attract followers on WeChat. Even China’s state television broadcaster, CCTV, launched its own WeChat account this April and promoted it on its daily news program - one of the most-watched programs in the world. Media use WeChat to send breaking news and in-depth analysis directly to their followers’ smart phones.
While the traditional news media’s appropriation of WeChat has further boosted its popularity, employees of WeChat fear that the increase in public news accounts has also made the company a target of state control.
Avoiding Weibo’s Fate
In recent years, the Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on the Internet and forced many social media platforms to censor their users. Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, has a team of more than 1000 employees to maintain its in-house censorship regime.
In conversations with WeChat employees, RNW was told that the company is doing its utmost to avoid such a scenario. For now, users enjoy a relatively larger degree of freedom on the platform. Whereas Chinese politicians’ names are censored on Weibo – making it impossible even to praise China’s leader Xi Jinping – users of WeChat can freely discuss these topics. Nevertheless, cautious users still avoid using WeChat to discuss sensitive topics, as they fear that their private communications might be subject to government surveillance.
Just for fun
For WeChat, censoring users’ content would be a costly affair, and it would require more complicated filtering technology. Unlike Sina Weibo, which is text-based, WeChat would have to find a way to filter multimedia content such as voice messages too.
WeChat’s strategy, therefore, is to downplay its new media potential. Ma Huateng, the Chairman of Tencent which developed WeChat, has previously stated that WeChat should emphasize its entertainment function and rely on mobile games to generate revenue.
No Such Thing As a Free Chat
In-house censorship is not the only problem WeChat is facing. Its service and popularity have also attracted attacks from the three largest telecommunication companies and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Because WeChat enables users to make phone calls and send text messages for free via their phone’s Internet connection, the app is devastating the telecommunication companies’ traditional sources of revenue. WeChat's reliance on mobile data services also increases telecommunication providers’ operating cost. The mobile data service fee paid by subscribers, however, does not make up for the cost, let alone generate profits.
The telecommunication companies have long been expecting Tencent Holdings to pay for mobile data service. Although WeChat has promised that its service will remain free, rumors have spread over the past few months that it will have to start charging its users to remain profitable. WeChat employees speculate that Tencent will have to negotiate with the telecommunication companies over dividing profits in the future.