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 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.
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…
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…
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.
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.