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Technology

The speakeasy economy of WeChat


For an app with over a billion users, WeChat doesn’t make a very strong first impression.

When I opened up WeChat for the first time during freshman orientation at Indiana University (IU), I was amazed at how haphazard it was. The design looked outdated, drenched in a hideous shade of green. The media feed was limited to low-quality photos for reasons I didn’t understand. Even basic navigation was illogical and confusing. I already knew WeChat was a cornerstone of Chinese online life — arguably the most powerful app in the world. Was this it?

For most non-Chinese college students, WeChat is relatively unknown. The only non-Chinese people who use it are usually those who have a specific connection to China. As I learned more of the language and became more entrenched in local Chinese student life, WeChat became a portal into an alternate Bloomington, where thousands of Chinese in southern Indiana come together to create their own social communities and economies entirely via WeChat channels.

At its core, WeChat is a messaging and social media app that includes features from nearly every app currently on your phone. For users not based in China, WeChat may simply serve as a messaging app for contacting friends currently living in China. The rest of WeChat’s many other features can be found tucked within “Discover” and “Me.” The Discover section includes the social media feed, verified accounts from companies and individuals, and thousands of mini programs that act as apps within WeChat, ranging from bike rentals and online shopping to travel and package delivery. While the majority of businesses and apps represented are domestic Chinese, major brands such as Airbnb, Lego, Yves Saint Laurent, Aldi, Air New Zealand, and thousands of other foreign brands use these mini programs to directly connect with their Chinese customers, allowing one to completely avoid the company’s website for browsing or ordering altogether.

WeChat’s true power lies under its “Me” tab within the wallet, which combines a user’s bank accounts, identification cards, and most recently, health information. With all of this information directly integrated into WeChat’s functions, the app’s capabilities extend to nearly every service imaginable. These include (but are not limited to) food delivery, bike rentals, train tickets, utility bills, health certificates, car buying, investments, charity donations, and thousands of miniature apps that extend WeChat’s capabilities to nearly every service imaginable. Paying in physical stores is as simple as scanning the cashier’s QR code or holding your account’s barcode in WeChat to be scanned by the barcode reader.

If you haven’t explored WeChat, using a single app for the majority of your screen time might seem preposterous. But in China, this kind of deep cross-functionality is taken for granted.

During my first year at Indiana University, I was excluded from many of the features that WeChat had to offer due to my lack of a Chinese bank account in addition to possessing the international version of the app. (Due to data privacy reasons, WeChat downloaded outside of China is slightly different and lacks many features of the domestic version.) And most importantly, I also lacked the ability to read enough Chinese to understand the features.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to travel to China for the first time while studying abroad at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Experiencing WeChat as more than just a messaging and social media app made me understand what true digital convenience could look like. From automatically pulling up a restaurant’s menu after the app geo-located me to placing all of my transportation options from A to B on a single screen, WeChat simplified my digital life down to nearly a singular app. Being immersed in the world of WeChat did require some getting used to. For example, the complete lack of interaction with waitstaff in restaurants, save for the bringing and clearing of food, was a new experience since ordering and payment all occurred via WeChat. Scanning WeChat QR codes became as common as a handshake, and I had a group chat for every class, occasion, and friend group combination.

Upon returning from China for the first time and experiencing the wonders of WeChat, I became determined to expose myself to more Chinese culture and social scenes in Bloomington. By scanning some of the community-oriented QR codes found in the windows of Bloomington’s many Chinese stores and restaurants with links to their “channels,” my feed quickly became filled with postings of local events, newsletters from local Chinese farmers, used luxury car sales, and daily menus for innumerable restaurants.

Through friends’ recommendations and a flurry of forwarded QR screenshots, I had found the ultimate Chinese-style convenience in Bloomington. I could get fresh coconut smoothies and piping hot dumplings delivered straight to my desk at the library within 15 minutes, suggesting that there was a large smoothie- and dumpling-making operation occurring in one of the nearby dorm buildings. When I tried to ask more about the virtual kitchen, the girl with a Hello Kitty backpack who brought me the smoothie was gone as quickly as she came.

As my Chinese improved and I became more involved in the WeChat-centric student life on campus, I slowly began to understand why WeChat is essential for Chinese living abroad. Apart from the obvious communication with friends and family back home, WeChat provides overseas Chinese a direct link to many of the creature comforts they miss from home. Similar to Facebook groups that cater to American expats and emigrants, WeChat also provides a support network with access to services such as US tax return assistance and Mandarin language therapy. For me, it provided a way to stay connected with China in a time when China couldn’t be more difficult to reach.

Upon graduating from Indiana University, I moved to Munich, Germany, where I work full time in consulting. A quick search through the various official accounts and a quick chat with some of the Chinese visa applicants standing in line with me at the foreigner’s office quickly opened yet another secret world of WeChat in Munich, filled with expat groups, grocery delivery services, German immigration lawyers, and yes, more dumpling dealers.

For some in the international community, WeChat’s appeal to westerners can feel troubling. A strict adherent to Chinese data security laws, WeChat uses its parent company Tencent’s servers to automatically detect certain sensitive keywords or images in content that prevent users from spreading topics considered to be sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party. This is often done without the sender or the recipient knowing that it was actually censored. Crucially, Tencent data transmitted between two non-Chinese-registered accounts does not have to follow mainland Chinese internet security laws — but the mere possibility of speech restrictions is enough to raise the alarm for some leaders. India has already banned the app in response to those concerns, and the US has taken steps in the same direction — although the Biden administration’s approach to the issue remains unclear.

But if WeChat is ever blocked in the United States, we’d be losing more than just an app. WeChat’s overwhelming nature is a reflection of Chinese culture itself: opportunistic and built on orderly chaos. WeChat gives me the sense of being at the pulse of the Chinese-speaking world, which makes it worth wading through the constant promotional spam messages that fill my group chats and the app’s massive, unfilterable social feed. It’s a taste of Chinese technological convenience and a ticket into the hidden world of the overseas Chinese community and economy. And while I enjoy the secret delivery services and event invites, I am most grateful to WeChat for increasing my own cultural understanding and for providing me with a daily dose of life in China, a country I truly hope to return to one day.

Aaron Corbett is a recent graduate of Indiana University and currently lives in Munich, Germany.



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