On WeChat and Chinese protectionism

China’s WeChat is the killer app the West is lacking. And it’s got a dataset that Google execs must be jealous of.

Visiting scholarships are the epitome of being lived. For a few weeks on end, one is thrust into meetings, classes, conferences, and hopefully an evening or two of socializing, and one returns home with some degree of happiness about the predictability of a regular week. Time is scarce, and swiftly hoarding together a network of peers and professors is key.

After arriving in Shanghai, in a rainy week in March, one specific piece of advice persistently echoes around: you really need WeChat for that.

WeChat is the Chinese equivalent of Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, and some dozen other services combined. It’s the Chinese end-all to social media, and it has got the national market covered: with over 846 million monthly active users the app comes close to the global monthly users of Whatsapp (about 1 billion).

What’s more, the app has gradually incorporated all kinds of services that aren’t traditionally part of a messenger service. There are free video calls and instant group chats to news updates, easy sharing of large multimedia files, and a dating function that you initiate by shaking your phone as if you were playing dice (because if someone nearby shakes as well, it’s a match). There’s also a contactless payment model built on QR codes that has all but erased cash and cards when shopping or eating out in a major Chinese city. You can pay taxis, find music tickets, and book foreign holidays. As a result, WeChat is big with corporations (instead of email), students (instead of BlackBoard), singles (instead of Tinder): more and more interactions are encapsulated by the app’s code.

All of those options, however, are no use if the app itself doesn’t work. After a day I find out that my freshly registered account has been blocked, due to “suspicious activity”. It’s completely unclear why. I have a Dutch phone number, but there is no information to be found on what exactly causes the suspicion. The app tell me I have to ask one of my newly made WeChat friends the embarrassing question if they can send a text message to the platform stating that I am, in fact, a person. So they do. The next day, my account is suspended again, and decide to leave the app for what it is.

This protectionism, which remains opaque in its specifics, reeks of Orwellian methods, but the local students here are less sure of how bad these choices are. Wang, a local master’s student, points out the amount of data amassed by American tech giant Google. “Western people have no problem with providing masses of data to the platform, which has grown so huge that it’s the question if any other Western data company will be ever able to compete. They do not, however, have data on Chinese audiences. Think about it: why would China give an American tech company the data of 1.4 billion citizens?” The Asian competitors in the global data market might be the only ones to form an alternative or challenge to Google. Wang considers that of vital importance.

This protectionism, which remains opaque in its specifics, reeks of Orwellian methods, but the local students here are less sure of how bad these choices are. Wang, a local master’s student, points out the amount of data amassed by American tech giant Google. “Western people have no problem with providing masses of data to the platform, which has grown so huge that it’s the question if any other Western data company will be ever able to compete. They do not, however, have data on Chinese audiences. Think about it: why would China give an American tech company the data of 1.4 billion citizens?” The Asian competitors in the global data market might be the only ones to form an alternative or challenge to Google. Wang considers that of vital importance.

Of course, Chinese censorship remains a problem to them. Students realize their government is blocking access to websites because of sensitive political topics—Tibet being the most well-known example. But the importance of a global counterweight to US companies weighs on the minds of many of the students I speak, who seem more actively aware of the possible ramifications of big data than most of my own students back home.

It all doesn’t change the complete inaccessibility of the app to me, however, and I’m left gazing at the crowds of people tapping their way through coffee shop payments, or sending emojis and snapping selfies whilst packed on the 5:30 train.

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