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This makes We Chat, she says ‘more like a browser for mobile websites, or arguable, a mobile operating system – complete with its own proprietary app store.’ We Chat’s expansion into every aspect of life in China, which has been in tandem with the rise of China’s middle class, and the speed at which it is extending itself into the rest of the world is a business and technology success story. Some of the concerns are about its monopoly, or near-monopoly power – similar to those raised in relation to other establishment ‘disruptors’ like Google and Facebook.
Others are to do with the fact that We Chat operates within a country ruled under a dictatorial, one-party system that displays little tolerance for dissenting views or simple outspokenness on topics it considers sensitive.
In 2011, the Chinese media, communications and internet giant Tencent, which Forbes now rates number 11 in the world for innovation, created We Chat in part to give users a way of avoiding costly text messages.
Each user has both a personal QR code and an inbuilt scanner that makes for a seamless exchange of contacts. You can of course also send photos, songs, news items, emojis and ‘stickers’ as well.
Not so long ago in China, it was de rigeur for the newly introduced to exchange name cards. I mainly use We Chat in my work with Chinese film directors and producers for whom I translate movie subtitles; pay for cabs when I’m in China; and keep in touch with Chinese and a growing number of other friends too. Check out the people nearby and send out an exploratory ‘hi’ (which they can answer, ignore or take as a reminder to fix their privacy settings).
That’s less than those on the world’s most popular messaging app Whats App (900 million) and on Facebook Messenger (800 million).
But those 650 million – and the number is growing rapidly – aren’t just telling each other what train they’re on, sharing photos of their breakfasts, flirting, or organising or conducting a meeting, though they do all of this too, of course. Users, in China at least, can order and pay for a taxi; donate to their favourite charity; send DIY postcards from whatever city they’re in; transfer money to a friend; find their nearest petrol station; check in for a flight; search a library catalogue for a book; shop; pay off a credit card; book a doctor’s appointment; follow the official accounts of celebrities ranging from Fan Bingbing to John Cusack; buy movie tickets; keep up with the Communist Party line via the People’s Daily (We Chat’s most heavily subscribed official account); check the points on their driver’s licence; top up their mobile accounts and find restaurant reviews, in some cases discovering how many people are queuing for tables before adding their names to the list.
As with Weibo and the Internet in general, government censors use algorithms that pick up sensitive words and banned topics.