WeChat’s speakeasy economy

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

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

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

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

The real power of WeChat lies in its “Me” tab in the wallet, which combines a user’s bank accounts, ID cards and, more recently, health information. With all of this information directly integrated into WeChat’s functions, the app’s capabilities extend to almost any service imaginable. These include (but are not limited to) food delivery, bike rental, train tickets, utility bills, health certificates, car purchases, investments, donations of charity and thousands of miniature apps that extend WeChat’s capabilities to almost any service imaginable. Paying at physical stores is as easy as scanning the cashier’s QR code or keeping your account 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 absurd. But in China, this kind of deep transversality is taken for granted.

During my freshman year at Indiana University, I was locked out of many features WeChat had to offer due to my lack of a Chinese bank account in addition to owning the international version of the app. (For data privacy reasons, WeChat downloaded outside of China is slightly different and lacks many features of the domestic version.) Most importantly, I also didn’t have 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 realize what true digital convenience could look like. Whether it’s automatically displaying a restaurant menu after the app geolocates me, or putting all my transport options from A to B on a single screen, WeChat has simplified my digital life in one go. almost unique application. Being immersed in the world of WeChat took some getting used to. For example, the complete lack of interaction with waiters in restaurants, except for bringing and cleaning food, was a new experience since ordering and payment was all done via WeChat. Scanning WeChat QR codes has become as common as a handshake, and I’ve had a group chat for every combination of class, occasion, and group of friends.

Upon returning from China for the first time and discovering the wonders of WeChat, I became determined to expose myself to more Chinese cultural and social scenes in Bloomington. Scanning some of the community-focused QR codes found in the windows of Bloomington’s many Chinese stores and restaurants with links to their “channels,” my feed quickly filled with posts from local events, farmer newsletters local Chinese, used luxury car sales. , and daily menus for countless restaurants.

Thanks to recommendations from friends and a slew of QR screenshots passed around, I had found the ultimate Chinese-style convenience in Bloomington. I could have fresh coconut smoothies and hot dumplings delivered straight to my desk at the library in 15 minutes, which suggests there was a large smoothie and dumpling making operation in one dormitories nearby. When I tried to find out more about the virtual kitchen, the girl with a Hello Kitty backpack who brought me the smoothie left as quickly as she came.

As my Chinese improved and I became more involved in WeChat-centric student life on campus, I slowly began to understand why WeChat is essential for Chinese people living abroad. Besides the obvious communication with friends and family back home, WeChat provides overseas Chinese with a direct link to many material comforts they miss at 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 filing assistance and Mandarin therapy. For me, it kept me in touch with China at a time when China couldn’t be harder to reach.

After 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 queuing with me at the Foreigners Office quickly opened up another secret WeChat world in Munich filled with expat groups, grocery delivery, German immigration. lawyers, and yes, more meatball vendors.

For some in the international community, WeChat’s appeal to Westerners may seem unsettling. Strictly adhering to China’s 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 posting topics deemed sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party. This is often done without the sender or recipient knowing that they have been censored. Basically, Tencent data passed between two unregistered accounts in China doesn’t have to follow mainland China’s internet security laws — but the mere possibility of speech restrictions is enough to raise alarm bells for some executives. India has already banned the app in response to such concerns, and the United States has moved 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 will lose more than just an app. The overwhelming nature of WeChat is a reflection of Chinese culture itself: opportunistic and built on ordered chaos. WeChat gives me the feeling of being on the pulse of the Chinese-speaking world, which makes it worth browsing 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 to the hidden world of overseas Chinese community and economy. And while I appreciate secret delivery services and event invitations, I am very grateful to WeChat for increasing my own cultural understanding and providing me with a daily dose of life in China, a country in which I really hope to return one day.

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

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