Hey, can I have you WeChat number?

An analysis of how WeChat transformed our life in social, political and economic aspects.

With the increasing need for socialising, the number of instant messaging software, represented by WhatsApp, Snapchat and WeChat, have proliferated during these years. Without a doubt, the most popular social networking software must be WeChat in China, not only for daily messaging, but also it covers almost every aspect of human life. Before, telephone numbers tied people’s relationships closely. Nowadays, WeChat has dramatically transformed Chinese even worldwide people’s lifestyle due to its innovation and convenience. The way people interacting, trading, participating in politics has experienced an incredible change on account of the emergence of WeChat.

This essay will firstly provide a brief introduction of WeChat and its historical background. Subsequently, WeChat’s business model and ecosystem will be demonstrated and explained in detail. Therefore, how WeChat has gradually transformed us socially, politically and economically will be finally analysed respectively.

What is WeChat?

WeChat (also called “Weixin”) is an instant messaging and calling application which is owned by Tencent, with 1206 million monthly active users in the second quarter of 2020 (Statistica, 2020). Besides the functions as a chatting tool, WeChat is also widely used for payment (QR code), posting photos (Moments), reading news (Subscriptions) (Tu, 2016). For instance, people can either click “Like” or respond to a certain post on “Moments” in order to interact with others (Wang et al., 2018). What is more, another two functions, making nearby friends and “sharing streaming content feeds” (Yang, Chen &Li, 2016) are also extensively used as the former is similar to Tinder. Forgetting about telephone numbers, just scanning the personal QR code, a lovely “chat travel” will begin. Therefore, WeChat has truly realised its slogan “WeChat is a lifestyle”(Sun, 2020).

Figure 1: WeChat’s People Nearby function by Philip McMaster PeacePlusOne_\!/ is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Figure 1: WeChat’s People Nearby function by Philip McMaster PeacePlusOne_\!/ is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Here is a two-minute video which vividly explaining what is WeChat.

 

The Historical Beginning of WeChat
Tracing back to the end of 2010, the Canadian company Kik launched a Kik Messenger and gain immediate success with 450 thousand downloads within 10 days (Harwit, 2017). A senior product manager from Tencent, Allen Zhang drew inspiration from the outstanding performance of Kik Messenger and proposed that they could imitate that and conduct a similar chatting application. Tencent Inc. founder, Huateng Ma approved Zhang’s proposal and named “WeChat” for this project. As an innovative idea, the number of WeChat’s team members gradually grew, and in January 2011 (Tencent, 2020), WeChat was finally launched on the iPhone, Android, and Symbian systems (Harwit, 2017).

The most attractive feature of WeChat initially, was free downloading and instant messaging. Users no longer paid to Chinese state-owned mobile phone companies. Instead, they downloaded WeChat for “text messaging, creating voice clips, and, sending photos” (Millward, 2018). In March 2012, the number of users of WeChat exceeded 100 million (Tencent, 2020). This tremendous data left all potential competitors including MiTalk (created by local mobile phone company Xiaomi) behind. With the introduction of WeChat Pay in August 2013, users experienced an exactly different payment method from before. It required users to bind their bank cards to WeChat, in order to achieve both online and cashless in-store payments (Millward, 2018).

According to Tencent’s vision and mission,

“User value is our guiding principle, we strive to incorporate social responsibility into our products and services” (Tencent, 2020).

The design of WeChat is the best evidence since it is undoubtedly the most popular mobile application in China nowadays.

WeChat’s Successful Business Model

In order to seek more opportunities and strengthen their marking position, many companies choose to apply new business models instead of conventional approaches. As Chesbrough and Rosenbloom (2002) mentioned, the business model was simply described as the method that companies used to generate revenue and sustain themselves. There are three dominant strategies that WeChat uses to consolidate its place:

1. The support from parent company Tencent (Lianghao, 2017)

QQ (Tencent’s first chat software) was launched in 1999 (Cantale & Buche, 2019), depended on its huge user base, WeChat has accumulated a large number of QQ users at the begging of its launch. This is the reason why WeChat gained 100 million users in approximately one year.

2. Emphasize on sharing

John (2016) argued that sharing our emotions and ideas on social media was beneficial for interpersonal relationships. “Moments” (also known as “Friend circle”) allows users to show their daily life, either pictures or plain text (Wang et al., 2018). Also, similar to Instagram and Twitter, young people actively participate in Moments sharing because of the function “Like”. Montag, Becker and Gan (2018) found that the number of “Likes” people received was proportionate to the level of self-esteem. Thus, a growing number of users are willing to share their life attitude or just interlude of their lives. 

3. The online-to-offline (O2O) model

According to Mao, Song and Yu (2015), the O2O model combines online shopping and offline consumption together, consumers are allowed to purchase items online without geographical restriction.

“Nowadays, WeChat is the most popular social networking information platform in China; it is evolving to be a major commercial trading platform by virtue of the fusion of the mobile e-commerce, social relations and customer experience (Mao, Song & Yu, 2015).”

 

Figure 2: The Realization of the Wechat Platform System of O2O Model. Image: Mao, Song & Yu (2015). All Rights Reserved

Figure 2: The Realization of the Wechat Platform System of O2O Model. Image: Mao, Song & Yu (2015). All Rights Reserved

QR code payment has covered most urban regions and some rural areas of  China. Therefore, relying on the O2O model, the mobile phone has become a digital wallet (Linghao, 2017).

WeChat’s internet ecology

Owners
WeChat is owned by Tencent (CEO: Huateng Ma), developed and launched by Allen Zhang (Harwit, 2017).

Users

WeChat is designed to facilitate all age groups by providing a range of functions. Figure 3 exhibits that in 2019, everyone of all ages participated in WeChat, especially people under 24 years old (33.55%) and people between 25 to 30 years old (25%). However, the young generation didn’t dominate the whole market since the number of users over the age of 41 occupied 19.1 percent. Therefore, WeChat is suitable for all age groups who are in need of socialising.
Figure 3: WeChat user age distribution in 2019. Image: Lai Lin Thomala. All Rights ReservedFigure 3: WeChat user age distribution in 2019. Image: Lai Lin Thomala. All Rights Reserved

Partners and Competitors

Tencent Video, QQ Music, Tencent Literature have a partnership with WeChat since they are all operated by Tencent. Besides, some restaurants brand such as Starbucks also cooperated with WeChat to boost revenues (Trefis, 2016). Additionally, some shopping, entertainment and taxi-hailing apps have collaborated with WeChat too.

In terms of competitors, it is undisputed that QQ possesses a parallel competitive relationship with WeChat as their market positioning is similar. However, other instant messaging platforms such as Line, Messenger and Whatsapp are direct competitors of WeChat in overseas markets. Moreover, WeChat operated WeChat Pay targeting directly with Alipay to dominate the Chinese market.Suppliers People are capable to download WeChat on the application store, for instance App Store for iPhone users, and Android Market for Android Phone users.RegulatorsChinese network supervision department and the Chinese Government take the role of regulators. In addition, WeChat users are also welcomed to offer suggestions and supervise the whole platform.

WeChat’s ecosystem map is shown below:

WeChat’s transformative Effects

Socially

It’s the true phenomenon that very few young generations in China asks each others’ telephone number for contact. Instead, exchanging WeChat number is popular in this digital era. Furthermore, in Subscriptions, users are able to follow official accounts, such as local news or entertainment news, to receive news regularly. It’s convenient to share articles to chat and “Moments”. As Martin (2019) argued,

“News sharing platforms are generally proprietary software systems which organise a variety of economic actors to create ‘scalable, re-configurable, multisided markets’ for the information we share and the news we personally value, commend and discuss with each other (Martin, 2019).”

WeChat users actively participate in news sharing. However, as a form of the private network, WeChat’s sharing is only confined to share articles among friends, family members and familiar people in comparison with Twitter’s publicity (Harwit, 2017). Seriously, it may lead to social atomisation since users prefer to maintain interactions with intimate groups with who they feel comfortable and trustworthy.

Politically

In terms of political transformation, the Chinese Government has imposed strict censorship of the media by detecting politically sensitive materials.  According to Harwit (2017), WeChat has automatically blocked sensitive words which are related to political rumor, corruption and president. Also, users outside China are also possible to be monitored without transparency (Kenyon, 2020). In fact, all Chinese social media platforms are responsible for legal content controls if they don’t want to be penalised and lose their business license. For the sake of maintaining a positive environment, WeChat actively controls the user’s speech without detection.

Figure 4: Censorship of COVID-19 keywords. Image: Miles Kenyon. All Rights Reserved.

Figure 4: Censorship of COVID-19 keywords. Image: Miles Kenyon. All Rights Reserved.

However, the political information within WeChat stimulates uses’ positive discussion towards the Chinese party (Yang & Men, 2019). Some government official accounts such as the People’s Daily get to know how the public feels and listen to their thoughts via WeChat. Before the emergence of WeChat, people reflected on social issues by calling complaint hotlines or going to the local government. Nowadays, citizens can make complaints via WeChat, simply fill in personal information and type details of complaints. Therefore, most users hold positive views towards the Chinese Government.

Economically

Unlike the past, many businesses have begun to combine both “traditional e-business platforms (Taobao) and social networking communications (WeChat)” (Yang, Chen & Li, 2016) in order to foster good relationships with potential customers by commenting or “liking” their posts. In other words, WeChat provides a commercial platform for merchants to develop a new business model that concentrates on both business and friendship relationships (Yang, Chen & Li, 2016).

Moreover, WeChat Pay was launched as a mobile payment method in 2013 (Plantin & de Seta, 2019). In order to popularise WeChat Pay, WeChat cooperated with the Chinese Spring Festival Gala in 2015, and gained “200 million users bind their bank card with WeChat Pay” (Chen, 2019). This novel scheme combined Chinese traditional festivals with media platforms, led to an increasing number of WeChat Pay user base (Plantin & de Seta, 2019).

With the popularisation of QR codes, a cashless society is already here, not on the horizon. For WeChat users, the only thing to do is to scan the QR code, mobile payment is made successfully.

Conclusion  

To sum up, as one of the most popular applications in China, WeChat has positively transformed the way we live in the digital world. With regard to its novel business model, WeChat emphasises on users’ sharing and online payment experience. Furthermore, in the social aspect, WeChat encourages users to interact actively and share content with others. In terms of the political dimension, government official accounts on WeChat are allowed users to make complaints conveniently. However, our message contents may be monitored due to Chinese censorship. Ultimately, sellers take advantage of WeChat to develop friendships with customers, and WeChat users are all enjoying the convenience of QR code payment.

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Jingchun Qiu
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Hi, this is Chris Qiu. 2nd year in USYD Enjoy traveling & reading