Not a single phenomenon is as important in understanding Chinese contemporary society as instant messaging cum social medium app WeChat. Roughly comparable to Whatsapp, WeChat offers all important communication services you would expect from such an app, but it includes a whole array of additional functionalities. Steadily, WeChat is becoming to function as the collective mind of the Chinese and increasingly the surface of everyday life in change becomes incomprehensible without a notion of this extremely popular application.
The general Western prejudice holds that information in China is strictly controlled and that free press is limited. Without having the desire to contradict these analysis completely, my stay I China last summer enhanced my image of this topic. First of all, the fact that Facebook and Google are generally banned in China, doesn’t mean that the services they provide are deemed dangerous by the Chinese government. In fact, Baidu, Weibo and WeChat function similar and often even more advanced ways than their Western counterparts.
Therefore, I’d rather like to think of the divide between Western media and Chinese media as a “silk” curtain, between which cross-influence is not really restricted, but nobody really cares about sharing information over to the other side. Much more than an attempt to limit the flow of information among its own citizens, I believe the ban on Facebook and Google in China could better be interpreted as a measure of protectionism against U.S. corporations. Of course, censorship and regulation are in fact performed by the Chinese government. But if sensitive topics are not discussed (for example the three tabooed “T” subjects in China: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen), it might often be a result of ignorance about these topics by the Chinese, while simultaneously we in the West can not understand that people just would not care about these topics.
The rise of WeChat in particular is intimidating. The app records over 600 million monthly users, over two thirds of the 900 million monthly users WhatsApp has. Currently WeChat is branching out to Africa, to see if it can take over the local internet market. In South Africa we gradually see a battle emerge between WeChat and WhatsApp to gain control over the market. Especially because of the wide spectrum of social services WeChat provides, I believe WeChat could very well at some point become a serious global challenger to WhatsApp. Its messaging service is only one aspect of the app, which is also used as microblogging service, social network, photoblogging service, dating app and payment service.
More than Facebook or WhatsApp, WeChat is able to provide what so many people desire: connection. In China, few meetings between strangers pass without the exchange of WeChat contact data by means of scanning a personalised QR code. That shy stranger you just nodded at in the subway reveals himself to be a highly expressive avatar on WeChat, with an unstoppable wave of stickers and other tokens of social appreciation which are ubiquitous in the Wonderworld of WeChat. To understand China, this is where it is happening now.