When China’s more interconnected than we are?

It’s hard to imagine that just 20 years ago, China had just opened its doors to the rest of the world. Back then the government had kept tight control of the media, filtering what news could flow in and out of the country. Little of the outside world was known and communication through telecom was very difficult considering poor living conditions. Now, I look at China in awe of its rapid transformation in the last two decades – how it’s gone from information deficit to almost information overload. With the rise of social media, Chinese people have encountered a privilege they never had before, a form of self-expression. As I’ve mentioned in my presentation this week, WeChat is now the largest social media platform for Mainland China, which was recently valued by HSBC at $83.6B.

WeChat basics

WeChat not only includes messaging, video calling, voice messaging, photo sharing, but also allows users to follow accounts, post photos and blog posts/status updates (much like Facebook timeline, Instagram and Twitter) as well as linking credit cards for quick mobile payments (like Apple Pay, Uber, Postmates and Venmo). The rate of this app adoption has integrated WeChat usage across generations, making it almost impossible to communicate or survive in China without creating an account.

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I’ve honestly never seen an app dominate so fiercely before until I lived in China. After years of being deprived of information sharing, the public’s hunger for self-expression has led to a new sense of empowerment, with users now eager to publish blog posts, create statuses and share links whenever possible. I can testify to this because my grandma sends me at least one health-related article per day at 5AM-Shanghai-time sharp. It’s been quite interesting observing how this new from of media has fueled the speed of news going viral as well as impacted the entire country’s standing.

In some cases, the WeChat network has triumphed…

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The public has become very fond of leveraging the power of crowdsourcing. Just a few years ago, the then railway minister Sheng Guangzu was photographed wearing a glitzy watch while examining a transportation accident in public. Once a meticulous blogger pointed out his watch was too expensive for a government official to afford based on his “supposed salary compensation”, the entire social media network exploded. The public dug into previous photos and records where he was caught wearing other luxury watches including Rolex, Cartier and Paget worth up to $58K. Viral blog posts about this topic caught the eye of the Chinese government and after further investigation, it was revealed that Sheng had accepted bribes worth up to $117M. Thus, an outraged public was able to trend articles about him via WeChat, which led to his eventual arrest for corruption.

But in other cases, the lines get blurry…

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I remember 2 years ago, over a dinner in Shanghai with a high school friend, I was asked if I had saw the “crazy trending articles” on the Uniqlo scandal that had happened midday while I was at work. Since I barely even used WeChat, my friend had to inform me that the article that had gone viral featured a video of a young couple doing “inappropriate things” in a Uniqlo changing room in Beijing. It was only the matter of hours before the Cyberspace Administration of China asked Tencent Holding Ltd. (WeChat) and Sina Corp (microblogging site) to take down the video/related articles because the law bans the spread of obscene materials via online and social media. But this was not before the video hit 1million views within 2 hours of posting. Tencent and Sina were both reprimanded for failing to uphold social responsibility awareness. The incident also resulted in intensive scrutiny for Uniqlo by the government in regards to whether or not the brand intended for the video to go viral as a publicity-marketing stunt. But while Uniqlo was condemned by some users as vulgar and unprofessional, the incident also created massive hype around the brand, with thousands of people flooding to the actual flagship location to take seflies outside the store.

Implications and future expansion

And so while the exposure of social media has let the public have a taste of self-expression, there are definitely limits to this privilege. And while I acknowledge these restrictions, I am still so impressed by the progress that’s been made – the fact that people and businesses can now utilize social media to communicate and flourish in ways they couldn’t imagine before.

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However, in terms of global expansion, I do not see WeChat being as successful elsewhere the way they are in China. This is mainly because Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. are blocked in China so the only alternative way to stay in contact with others is Wechat, especially since it’s seen as an all-encompassing app. Even with sponsored celebrities for WeChat such as Messi, India is still big on Whatsapp/Facebook messenger, while Indonesia sticks with BBM and Thailand has adopted Line. The only other countries WeChat has been able to capture a relatively big share of users is Hong Kong and Malaysia. But while its global expansion may be unsuccessful, I see WeChat as the dominating player in Mainland China in the future years to come (especially since it holds 93% market share in China as of 2017).

It has currently rolled out its “mini app” program, where apps are downloaded instantly and stored/used within WeChat. Although mini apps are not doing as great as people had expected, mostly because they are competing directly with WeChat service accounts, investors have high hopes for this function in the future to outcompete Apple store. If this were to happen, WeChat would truly be an all-encompassing app for the Chinese public.

9 comments

  1. Awesome blog! I think it’s a great continuation of your presentation. It’s interesting to hear about the sort of “online justice” that comes from a platform like WeChat, especially considering the possible differences in culture norms across countries. I found your example of the public calling out a government official on his watch really interesting. It shows that humans have a tendency to unite over a common cause when an easily available platform is available. I’m very curious to see how a centralized app model might impact the U.S., which already has it’s own SM giants so far.

  2. It sounds like it may be interesting to take a look at the WeChat revenue streams and see if there is some sort of incentive for the government to keep facebook and other platforms out of the country. Maybe it is just a matter of conceding certain rights of control to the government to censor certain things (something facebook doesn’t seem likely to agree to). It does seem that Chinas rapid growth and the trajectory of that growth would indicate facebook and other platforms will be adapted at some point so it will be interesting to keep an eye on.

    1. Actually, many people have speculated that perhaps China will open its Internet gate to Facebook again someday in the future depending on the economy and whether or not the government thinks allowing Facebook to enter into the market again would help China’s globalization.

  3. Great follow up to a fantastic presentation. Nice work!

  4. Great post – and your presentation was one of my favorite so far this semester. I can’t believe the scandal with the government employee wearing an expensive watch that resulted in his arrest due to corruption…all because of social media! I really enjoyed learning about WeChat from your presentation and it makes sense that the very reason it has become so wildly successful in China (their limited access to other social media platforms) is precisely why it won’t ever take off at the same rate outside of China. Great work!

    1. Thank you so much for listening! It really is crazy to think about how this social networking platform has literally re-shaped the entire competitive business industry (telecom/tech/basically any industry you can think of) and the way Mainlanders consume and communicate.

  5. I loved your presentation so I’m glad you followed it up with this blog post! i was really intrigued about whether WeChat could thrive anywhere else but it makes sense that in the US there are too many forms of social media that it would be hard to centralize all of them onto one platform. WeChat seems toe efficient and a quick way to do everything you need but it also comes with the price that China is so restrictive. Maybe Facebook will buy a few other apps and make one big one similar to this??

    1. Thanks Isabel! I’m actually very curious to see if Facebook will be creating something all-encompassing as well since it already has Whatsapp/FB messenger/allows payment via FB messenger and it’s recently started FB stories…

  6. Really great post. I found the story about the politician getting caught wearing the watches fascinating. The idea that mob mentality can take over and a witch hunt can get started has always seemed pretty frightening to me. It’s crazy how much information a bunch of dedicated people on the Internet can find. I also think the phenomenon of an entirely separate tech market evolving in China is very interesting; I think it’s good for innovation if separate markets develop different applications that can then learn from each others’ success without direct competition.

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