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“There’s no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. We use WeChat,” opens the viral hit “WeChat,” by the up-and-coming Chinese rap group Higher Brothers. The song goes on to poke fun at the dynamics of social media relationships: “Ayo, tell me your WeChat number.”

The social media platform WeChat, owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings, Inc., no longer simply fills Chinas void of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but has become a cultural force and institution in its own right. Boasting around 938 million monthly users and accounting for 30 percent of China’s mobile usage, WeChat has found ways to infiltrate all corners of Chinese society on an unparalleled scale.

WeChat cultivated a base of devotees who use its services to do everything from messaging friends and posting photos to calling cabs and paying for meals. In the process, the platform has drawn the attention of the Chinese government. A veritable “superapp,” WeChat combines the popular services and collects a staggering amount of human data in the process—all of which is made accessible to the state.

At first, the rise of social media in China provided more opportunities for open expression and political organization—a powerful threat to the Communist Party’s power and its vision for social stability. However, these services now provide the government with an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of Chinese citizens—what they discuss, how they spend money, and where they gather.

Rather than providing a forum for open political expression, WeChat has become a tool for the consolidation of the Chinese government’s power.

From Weibo to WeChat

Ya-Wen Lei, an assistant professor of Sociology at Harvard, emphasized the importance of understanding WeChat’s place in the evolution of China’s online sphere in an interview with the HPR. Prior to the popularity of WeChat, the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo revolutionized Chinese social media by providing a platform for public discourse. In the late 2000s, with the rise of President Xi Jinping, the government cracked down on this form of expression by targeting influential public opinion leaders who utilized its services. China-watchers once hopeful for a new era of free speech in the country soon became disenchanted.

Government monitoring of the first generation of social media influencers, and differences in the two platforms’ features (WeChat’s emphasis is on more personal, closed social circles), have prevented individuals from spreading opinions or mobilizing on WeChat to the same extent as on Weibo.

“Scholars often talk about the rise of the internet leading to decentralization, but the Chinese government is very clever. They kind of use social media and the design of technology to really recentralize,” said Lei. “[WeChat] is actually a centralization of a lot of things in your daily life, so it’s actually become easier for the government to monitor and oversee.”

Much like the government, WeChat has pushed to centralize technology with its continuous integration of new features. Created by Chinese gaming company Tencent in 2011, WeChat first gained popularity as a dating app, allowing users to identify those nearby. Since then, it has expanded its messaging features, developed an AI lab in Seattle, and has begun to dip its toes into the rapidly expanding mobile health insurance industry. WeChat has even introduced a “mini-program” feature that allows developers to build apps within the WeChat app—decreasing the need for app stores and downloads outside of WeChat.

One of the app’s most popular features is WeChat Pay, a mobile payment service. WeChat Pay has “grown organically from micropayments to offline payments” as phones have replaced wallets in major Chinese cities, according to Matthew Brennan, WeChat expert and founder of the platform’s largest marketing conference. WeChat is betting on its nearly 200 million WeChat Pay users to expand its ecommerce services to include full-fledged mobile banking, a potential threat to state-owned and traditional banks.

With a vast amount of data at stake, critics have often called WeChat’s privacy policies into question. According to Brennan, “In terms of government access to data in China, there’s government access if they [the government] request such access.” This policy applies not only to WeChat, but also to other Chinese platforms. However, Tencent is more restrictive than many U.S. technology companies in sharing data with third parties, such as marketers. Furthermore, user data from WeChat app usage outside of China is routed through servers outside of the Chinese mainland, and therefore does not fall under Chinese legal jurisdiction.

An Xiao Mina, a technologist and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, described how WeChat’s level of encryption differs from that of its U.S. counterparts in an interview with the HPR. While many U.S. tech companies lack access to certain user data, and therefore are unable to share it with the government, WeChat has no such limit, which enables increased government surveillance and intervention. The stakes of censorship have risen as uncooperative individuals face visits from Chinese officials or arrest.

“The controls on the internet have gotten much stricter and many of them are designed specifically to curb virality—it is much more difficult now to participate in much larger, viral projects,” says Mina.

Behind the Great Firewall

Government access to data collected by WeChat has implications that extend beyond its capacity to censor information. For example, WeChat includes a “heat map” feature in major Chinese cities that shows the density of foot traffic in a particular area, based on its location-tracking abilities. This information, when utilized by the government, can indicate potential protests or areas that might require additional security to maintain order.  

WeChat also serves as an effective tool for shaping public opinion. China’s traditional wu mao (five cent army)—a body of Chinese citizens paid by the government to post online in favor of the Communist Party—has been usurped by a new set of “public opinion analysts.” These new, more sophisticated analysts often have technological backgrounds and work for media organizations, universities, and private companies. According to Lei, the analysts “use technology like big data analysis and cloud computing to increase the level of surveillance” and write reports for the government.

As indicated in a study by the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab, the Chinese government has continued to crack down on online sentiment using increasingly sophisticated censorship measures. For example, citizens are no longer informed if their content is censored, and the number of censored words varies by the number of users that a post can reach.

Memes, as well as phrases with double meanings, are often employed as mechanisms for evading censorship on WeChat, but have recently caught the attention of the Chinese government. This past summer, even Winnie the Pooh became an object of the government’s censorship after the spread of a meme likening President Xi to the storybook character.

According to Mina, “The government is starting to put together a real name registration and setting up a social credit system to tie one’s online activity to one’s physical identity. This makes it much more difficult to participate in that [meme] culture.”

Though government intervention in the social media realm has at times been overt—the Party has limited VPN services in China, for example—the state has also exercised power more surreptitiously, pressuring Tencent to accept modifications to WeChat policy. In September, WeChat initiated policy changes that hold the creators of WeChat groups responsible for their content. This change led to widespread “self-censoring” as these creators, fearful of punishment for the content generated by their groups, deleted them. Ahead of the 19th National Party Congress, WeChat users’ ability to change aspects of their profile was frozen to prevent the expression of strong political sentiments.

The Next Generation

Despite this crackdown, Mina sees a dichotomy between increased monitoring and non-political forms of expression for China’s younger generation. “On one hand, there are very strong trends of clamping down on speech. On the other hand, you do see a very vibrant youth culture online that is actively talking about social issues. So as long as they don’t cross the line, it can be a very lively space.”

As China’s younger generation has embraced WeChat, the government has taken notice. However, ties between Chinese technology companies and the government often balance precipitously between contention and cooperation. Even as it faces strict fines and regulations from the government, Tencent produces overtly-propagandist mobile games. In one such game, the player watches President Xi give a speech and tries to clap as much as possible. While the government recognizes the dangers of the spread of illicit memes on WeChat, it also has expressed interest in becoming a shareholder in technology companies like Tencent.

The Chinese government’s interest in Tencent indicates the potential it sees in harnessing WeChat’s data and technology to maintain control. As the Communist Party seeks ways to gain relevancy among China’s younger generation—which does not remember the period of opening and reform that legitimized the government for the previous generation—it need look no further than their cell phones.

Image Credit: Victoria Berzin

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