Why Everyone Uses WeChat in China today?
A social media tool called WeChat has become an indispensable mobile app for each Chinese. The software has attracted over a billion users in less than a decade, which is astonishing in the world of social media. “According to data provided by Tencent in February 2019, with 1.08 billion monthly active users, WeChat is today one of the most popular messaging apps in the world, right behind WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger” (Negro et al., 2020, p. 2). As of today, WeChat is not only an instant messaging tool but also a mobile digital payment tool. However, among China’s numerous social media apps, such as Weibo and Xiao HongShu, and digital payment tools like Alipay, none of them is as widely used as WeChat. As a result, WeChat dominates almost all Chinese social media today. Through the analysis of WeChat features, the combination of instant messaging and digital payment functions has allowed WeChat to dominate online communication among Chinese people.
In China, WeChat is used in each aspect of life throughout the day.
Social media in China started relatively late, but it has been growing fast. With the support of Internet, China’s earliest social media began in the first decade of the 21st century, such as Weibo and QQ. However, in the first decade, China’s social media tools were unable to compete with huge foreign social media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter. When these platforms began to be used in China, geopolitical turmoil like the Arab Spring made the Chinese government block overseas social media. At this time, the political move has established a huge niche for upcoming domestic social media platforms. Since foreign social media cannot be accessed in China, “local internet companies and content providers had free rein to experiment and develop a national market as well as compete for audience niches and media formats” (Plantin & de Seta, 2018, p. 7). An Internet company called Tencent based in Shenzhen, China, seized the opportunity and took up the niche market. In 2011, Tencent launched an instant messaging software, Weixin, which was later translated as WeChat. At the beginning, WeChat was an instant messaging software. Since it was easy to operate and could send voice message, it filled a gap in China’s instant messaging market. Once it was released, it gained a large number of users. However, WeChat users in 2011 did not know that WeChat would bring them more.
On the one hand, WeChat’s instant messaging function continues QQ online communication method. On the other hand, WeChat has been optimized for instant messaging, making it easy to operate. On top of texting, WeChat users can also contact their friends through voice messaging as well as voice and video calls. This operation allows WeChat to expand its user base to the elderly group. As it has been argued, “voice messaging function enables older generations to enjoy easy communication with their contacts, which attracted parents in their fifties and above to be an active part of WeChat, not requiring cumbersome text entry” (Wu, 2014, p. 14). In other words, WeChat’s target audience is almost all age groups.
Furthermore, “the WeChat IM allows a large number of users to create a dedicated chat room known as a WeChat Group” (Kow et al., 2017, p. 147). Nowadays, WeChat Group has covered all areas of users, including family communication, home-school communication, work communication, and institution communication. In addition, WeChat Moments (Friends Circle) and Official Accounts have given users more exposure. Users can share their daily activities in Moments and get likes from their friends on WeChat. WeChat Official Accounts provide users with a platform for media creation and promotion, which further promotes user interaction on WeChat. Therefore, in terms of instant messaging, WeChat has won the favor of its users for its easy accessibility and multi-functionality, especially as a social app that is friendly to the elderly.
In 2012, the QR code invented in Japan was widely used by WeChat to identify users’ personal information, which provided a more convenient way for users to contact with each other. Subsequently, in 2013, WeChat also widely applied QR codes to digital payments. With China’s digital payment giant Alipay, Alipay and WeChat payment have carved up China’s digital payments market by QR code payments.
WeChat launched mobile wallets, then convinced users to record their financial credentials on WeChat, and then persuaded third-party merchants to set up online payment accounts. As it is noted, “WeChat is such a dominating social chat tool that Tencent is able to try many options to engage WeChat users to tie their bank accounts with WeChat Pay” (Wang & Gu, 2017, p. 5). Under such complex operations, WeChat successfully established peer-to-peer payment.
Subsequently, in 2014, WeChat released another feature, Red Packet (Hongbao), a digital money game for fun. “A hongbao, containing a token sum of money, can be given by one Chinese to another for many reasons, including childbirth, Chinese New Year, marriage, birthday, promotion, and other ceremonial occasions” (Kow et al., 2017, p. 146). This function is associated with traditional Chinese culture and realizes the vision of gift money remotely, which is particularly attractive to senior people.
Red Packets create a hub between online chat and mobile payments, allowing users to strengthen their contacts while also promoting widespread use of WeChat Pay.
WeChat’s subsequent mini-programs can take users directly to the functions they want to use without downloading or installing extra apps, including shopping, games, music, and transportation, such as DiDi (similar to Uber). With the support of Red Packets, transfers, financial management and other functions built within the WeChat platform, WeChat Pay has become an indispensable mobile wallet for users. As it is noted, “a widely used mobile payment, WeChat payment has become the mainstream payment method in the market, which has changed the payment habits of consumers, making it unnecessary to carry cash when buying things” (Tang et al., 2021, p. 1856). Through the mobile payment functions, financial functions based on a large user group has enabled WeChat to change its users’ payment methods and even consumption habits.
However, WeChat has been criticized on many aspects. WeChat is considered a form of copying in many ways. For example, WeChat’s “Friends Circle” (Moments) is considered to be a copycat version of Instagram and Path (Yang et al., 2016, p. 417). WeChat founder Zhang Xiaolong believes that many users have not noticed the fineness of WeChat Moments, and other features of WeChat. it is undeniable that WeChat has indeed imitated Facebook in instant message and post function, but it did optimization. For example, “making commenting on your content a more controlled, private experience by not allowing friends of friends to view your comments” (Wu, 2014, p. 12). In other words, the contents of a user’s Moments can only be seen by the user’s contacts, and users who are not in the user’s contact list cannot view the contents of the user’s Moments, which makes users’ Moments more private. Especially, WeChat’s unique feature is the combination of instant messaging and digital payments, which was almost impossible to achieve for Facebook and other social media at the time. In addition, within China, WeChat dominates the social media space as well as the digital payments space through the feature. On the one hand, WeChat’s early entry into the domestic social media field allows it to take the lead in occupying China’s social media niche market. On the other hand, WeChat’s continuous reform and innovation allows it to develop and maintain users, which has laid a strong user base for its digital payments.
Almost every Chinese uses WeChat to contact family and friends, classmates, colleagues and business partners. Therefore, if a Chinese does not have WeChat, it is very likely that he or she will lose contact with the people around, and it will also become difficult to pay for their purchases.
Kow, Y. M., Gui, X., & Cheng, W. (2017). Special Digital Monies: The Design of Alipay and WeChat Wallet for Mobile Payment Practices in China. 16th IFIP Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (INTERACT), 136-155. https://inria.hal.science/hal-01679828
Negro, G., Balbi, G., & Bory, P. (2020). The path to WeChat: How Tencent’s culture shaped the most popular Chinese app, 1998–2011. Global Media and Communication, 1-19. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1742766520923008
Plantin, J., & de Seta, G. (2018). WeChat as infrastructure: the techno-nationalist shaping of Chinese digital platforms. Journal of Chinese Communication, 1-18. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/id/eprint/91520
Tang, Y. M., Chau, K. Y., Hong, L., Kit Ip, Y., & Yan, W. (2021). Financial Innovation in Digital Payment with WeChat towards Electronic Business Success. J. Theor. Appl. Electron. Commer, 16, 1844-1861. https://doi.org/10.3390/jtaer16050103
Wang, J., & Gu, L. (2017). Why is WeChat Pay so Popular? Issues in Information Systems, 18(4), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.48009/4_iis_2017_1-8
Wu, J. (2014). How WeChat, the Most Popular Social Network in China, Cultivates Wellbeing. Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Capstone Projects, 65, 1-38. http://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_capstone/65
Yang, X., Sun, S. L., & Lee, R. P. (2016). Micro-Innovation Strategy: The Case of WeChat. Asian Case Research Journal, 20(2), 401-427. http://dx.doi.org/10.1142/S0218927516500152