Forget TikTok. China’s Powerhouse App Is WeChat. - The New York Times
Ms. Li said. “It felt like if I only watched Chinese media, all of my thoughts would be different.”
Ms. Li had little choice but to take the bad with the good. Built to be everything for everyone, WeChat is indispensable.
For most Chinese people in China, WeChat is a sort of all-in-one app: a way to swap stories, talk to old classmates, pay bills, coordinate with co-workers, post envy-inducing vacation photos, buy stuff and get news. For the millions of members of China’s diaspora, it is the bridge that links them to the trappings of home, from family chatter to food photos.
Woven through it all is the ever more muscular surveillance and propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. As WeChat has become ubiquitous, it has become a powerful tool of social control, a way for Chinese authorities to guide and police what people say, whom they talk to and what they read.
As a cornerstone of China’s surveillance state, WeChat is now considered a national security threat in the United States. The Trump administration has proposed banning WeChat outright, along with the Chinese short video app TikTok. Overnight, two of China’s biggest internet innovations became a new front in the sprawling tech standoff between China and the United States.
While the two apps are lumped in the same category by the Trump administration, they represent two distinct approaches to the Great Firewall that blocks Chinese access to foreign websites.
The hipper, better-known TikTok was designed for the wild world outside of China’s cloistering censorship; it exists only beyond China’s borders. By hiving off an independent app to win over global users, TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, created the best bet any Chinese start-up has had to compete with the internet giants in the West. The separation of TikTok from its cousin apps in China, along with deep popularity, has fed corporate campaigns in the United States to save it, even as Beijing potentially upended any deals by labeling its core technology a national security priority.
Though WeChat has different rules for users inside and outside of China, it remains a single, unified social network spanning China’s Great Firewall. In that sense, it has helped bring Chinese censorship to the world. A ban would cut dead millions of conversations between family and friends, a reason one group has filed a lawsuit to block the Trump administration’s efforts. It would also be an easy victory for American policymakers seeking to push back against China’s techno-authoritarian overreach.
WeChat started out as a simple copycat. Its parent, the Chinese internet giant Tencent, had built an enormous user base on a chat app designed for personal computers. But a new generation of mobile chat apps threatened to upset its hold over the way young Chinese talked to one another.
The visionary Tencent engineer Allen Zhang fired off a message to the company founder, Pony Ma, concerned that they weren’t keeping up. The missive led to a new mandate, and Mr. Zhang fashioned a digital Swiss Army knife that became a necessity for daily life in China. WeChat piggybacked on the popularity of the other online platforms run by Tencent, combining payments, e-commerce and social media into a single service.
It became a hit, eventually eclipsing the apps that inspired WeChat. And Tencent, which made billions in profits from the online games piped into its disparate platforms, now had a way to make money off nearly every aspect of a person’s digital identity — by serving ads, selling stuff, processing payments and facilitating services like food delivery.
While the Chinese government could use any chat app, WeChat has advantages. Police know well its surveillance capabilities. Within China most accounts are linked to the real identity of users.
Ms. Li was late to the WeChat party. Away in Toronto when it exploded in popularity, she joined only in 2013, after her sister’s repeated urging.
It opened up a new world for her. Not in China, but in Canada.
She found people nearby similar to her. Many of her Chinese friends were on it. They found restaurants nearly as good as those at home and explored the city together. One public account set up by a Chinese immigrant organized activities. It kindled more than a few romances. “It was incredibly fun to be on WeChat,” she recalled.
Now the app reminds her of jail. During questioning, police told her that a surveillance system, which they called Skynet, flagged the link she shared. Sharing a name with the A.I. from the Terminator movies, Skynet is a real-life techno-policing system, one of several Beijing has spent billions to create.
Wary of falling into automated traps, Ms. Li now writes with typos. Instead of referring directly to police, she uses a pun she invented, calling them golden forks. She no longer shares links from news sites outside of WeChat and holds back her inclination to talk politics.
Still, to be free she would have to delete WeChat, and she can’t do that. As the coronavirus crisis struck China, her family used it to coordinate food orders during lockdowns. She also needs a local government health code featured on the app to use public transport or enter stores.
“I want to switch to other chat apps, but there’s no way,” she said.
“If there were a real alternative I would change, but WeChat is terrible because there is no alternative. It’s too closely tied to life. For shopping, paying, for work, you have to use it,” she said. “If you jump to another app, then you are alone.”