Opinion: We need to stop equating WeChat with the Chinese internet

What if, in the future not far away, there will be no other Chinese app besides WeChat?

As China’s provincial governments began to roll out electronic travel papers — for their citizens to travel to Hong Kong — in cooperation with Tencent’s WeChat, I had mixed feelings toward this decision. On one hand, I am delighted that the Chinese government has been making effort in digitizing bureaucratic processes, the most obnoxious of which being immigration documents; yet on the other, the overwhelming growth of WeChat’s role in the Chinese internet sector worries me.

Since the launch of WeChat in 2011 as a chat tool with push-to-talk features, the product has undergone significant horizontal expansion under the management of senior Tencent executive Allen Zhang. Zhang’s team first introduced official accounts, allowing original articles to be distributed through the WeChat platform. The team then integrated its own digital payment service, WeChat Pay, posing a challenge to Alipay’s market monopoly in China. WeChat’s recent strategy is more notable, as it launched Mini Programs, effectively creating an open platform through which developers can generate web apps directly accessible to WeChat users.

You might have heard of the utopian version of WeChat’s ecosystem: for an ordinary Chinese resident, nothing — from hailing taxis to paying utility bills to ordering deliveries — can’t be done over WeChat. Many would hence conclude that WeChat’s ubiquity and omnipotence — which American internet giants including Facebook aspire to replicate — as unprecedented. But I would like to present a dystopian narrative of the Chinese “super app”: China’s internet scene is turning the viral product into a tumor, and time will soon show that it is a malignant one.

WeChat is against the fundamental values for which the internet stands. Because of WeChat’s social factors, the best quality Chinese articles I have read often originate from WeChat official accounts. Yet what many content producers don’t realize is, the platform bans its articles from appearing in search engine results, except Sogou which is backed by Tencent. It also prohibits unverified authors from embedding external links in published posts which often can’t be edited afterward.

Such policies effectively isolate content on WeChat from the rest of the internet and has obvious drawbacks. One direct consequence is copyright infringement: When an author can’t refer to another piece of information by using a hyperlink (like this), nothing is easier than copy-and-paste. While this happens on weblogs or Medium, a Google search would easily signify the plagiarism, but such verification does not typically happen on WeChat. The same rule applies to information authenticity. It should not be hard to understand why WeChat coincidentally has significant problems with both issues, not just infringing rights of Chinese content publishers but also polarizing Chinese American voters.

WeChat Search is yet another brick in Tencent’s walled garden strategy

Moreover, WeChat has no transparency regarding how it protects user data. Examining numerous cases in which Tencent hand reveal chat history to Chinese authorities, it is safe to assume that WeChat, not unlike most Chinese internet giants (including Baidu), cares little about user privacy. In concrete terms, it is in one’s best interest to voluntarily provide as little personal data to WeChat as one possibly could.

If WeChat was China’s internet, there would be absolutely no internet neutrality. The platform constantly blocks web pages of competitors of Tencent itself, or in its investment portfolio. It has so far allegedly blocked users from accessing Toutiao, Taobao, Douyin and more, using its built-in browser.

Now, let us revisit my hypothesis: will we be okay with a future in which WeChat equates to China’s internet? As internet companies began to migrate their Android apps to the WeChat mini program platform, they are entering a one-way alley. “While in theory users could choose to opt-out if WeChat reaches that level of control,” commentator C. Custer wrote in an editorial for Tech In Asia. “The more widely-used WeChat becomes for aspects of everyday life, the more difficult extricating oneself from the platform becomes.”

Many — including the Chinese provincial authority which proposed to issue WeChat-based travel documents — has fallen into the fallacy that WeChat equals digitization. If public amenities choose to advantage WeChat’s ecosystem over adopting independent platforms, it will inevitably facilitate WeChat’s monopoly. We enjoy the convenience which WeChat brings to us, but we will soon be paying a price for it.