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All Eyes Are on WeChat, Including the Chinese Government's

The Chinese social media app is 300 million strong and growing. It's also really fun. But how safe is your data?
Chinese social network WeChat is blowing up, and the Chinese government is watching. Image: Flick/Ming Xia

Here’s a free tip, Facebook execs: Pitch stories to every tech writer you know about the threat of dissidents being tracked through the Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat. Because WeChat is climbing in your window, snatching your people up. Your profits–and privacy–may be next.

If you haven’t heard of WeChat, think of it as a better WhatsApp, crossed with the social features of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, mixed with Skype and a walkie-talkie—with a little dash of Grindr on top. (Or bottom, depending on your personal proclivities.) It’s taken China by storm. As of January, it had 300 million users. Unsurprisingly, it’s attracting a lot of marketing interest: Companies like Starbucks and Nike have already run campaigns on WeChat.


If you ever used ICQ (“I seek you”) back in the day, you have some connection to WeChat’s origins. WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, more or less copied ICQ and launched it in China in 1999 as OICQ (the “O” stands for “open”). Due to potential copyright issues surrounding the name, as well as the fact that “open” ICQ wasn’t actually open, OICQ was later renamed QQ. Today, QQ’s homepage is the ninth-most visited website in the world, and the service has more than 700 million active users.

WeChat uses location data to hook you up with users IRL.

WeChat was able to piggy back to some extent on QQ’s success. It searches users’ phone and QQ contacts, which meant it was able to build a massive user base very quickly. Two years ago, flirting with someone in China often meant exchanging QQ handles; now, you tell potential boos to add you on WeChat.

But WeChat isn't stopping in China. It's going global. After launching domestically as "Weixin" in early 2011, the company rebranded itself as WeChat for the international market in 2012. Now, the app is available in English, Russian, Indonesian, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese. It’s Apple’s number-one social-networking app in several Southeast Asian countries, with a view toward expansion: An exec from its parent company, Tencent, said last October that it was growing in the Middle East and the US. On February 25, Tencent announced plans to open an office in the US to “study American users’ habits…and explore business opportunities.”


I started using WeChat a few weeks ago to stay in touch with friends in China, and love it so much that, like the company itself, I’m now trying to get my American friends to download it as well. Problem is, I always feel obligated to add one teeny, little caveat: Even if you’re living stateside, there’s a chance you’ll be surveilled by the Chinese government.

LOL Censorship

Awkward fact: Every internet company in China, both foreign and domestic, is held legally liable for all content shared through their various platforms. (So are telecom operators, on grounds related to guarding state secrets.) In other words, Tencent does and must censor WeChat messages shared within China. It claims rules are different for content exchanged outside of China. But in January, reports indicated certain Chinese characters in WeChat’s international messages were being censored, too. Within 24 hours, the company put out a statement that the “glitch” was being resolved.

The prospect of our data “being processed and monitored on China-based servers,” as PandoDaily put it, is unappetizing to say the least. Nonetheless, the controversy seems to have subsided in the months since.

Screen grab of "Shake" a WeChat feature that helps users find
one another and exchange info.

Some international users might not care if only Chinese-language messages are censored—whether the so-called “glitch” is really resolved or not. But it’s also possible that a program that synchs to data in users’ phones, as WeChat does, could be used as a surveillance tool. That may prove to be a more difficult pill for international users to swallow.

“The Chinese government could in theory gain access to anything stored on a server in China,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and internet, in an email. “Furthermore, the Chinese government could in theory apply pressure on a company whose major operations and revenue are in China to hand over data stored outside China.”


Historically, that kind of pressure is more than just a theory. In 2006, Yahoo, an American company, came under fire for handing data to the Chinese government, which resulted in the jailing of several dissidents. A Chinese company faces even more pressure to keep its host country’s government happy.

Just last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published revelations about China’s monitoring of not only Skype’s joint venture in China with Tom Online, a Chinese wireless Internet company (called TOM-Skype), but some regular Skype users outside the country as well.

Per the article:

[T]he latest enhancement to TOM-Skype sends information about both sender and recipient to the Chinese computer servers. That means that even users of the standard Skype program outside China are subject to monitoring if they communicate with users of the Chinese version.

But according to Mark Natkin, managing director and founder of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, a tech and telecom services firm, Tencent is “savvy enough” to understand that “any major revelation that they are inappropriately using or accessing user info could strike their death knell” as it expands into overseas markets. He pointed out how quickly it got its PR machine rolling in response to the censorship kerfuffle in January. “It seems quite clear that they are very aware and sensitive to the fact that to succeed overseas, they can't be perceived in any way as censoring, or inappropriately using, user information.”


If recent history is any indicator, however, “death knell” may be overstating it. Companies like Facebook have suffered rather small consequences in response to their murky privacy policies. I, for one, kept using Instagram, albeit with more trepidation, while the photo licensing controversy was going down. And I was one of the many people who recently received an email from Facebook, notifying me of a class-action lawsuit against the company because my content may have been illegally used in something it called “Sponsored Stories.”

“The Chinese government could in theory gain access to anything stored on a server in China.”— Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei

The threat of government surveillance isn't a uniquely Chinese menace. Transparency reports recently released by Google show the US federal government has made information requests—mostly subpoenas and search warrants —for thousands of user accounts each year since at least 2009. The requests are partly for US investigations, Google explains, but also for "requests made on behalf of other governments pursuant to mutual legal assistance treaties and other diplomatic mechanisms." The number of annual requests has gone up each year since 2009, and Google's compliance rate with furnishing the information hovers consistently around 90 percent.

Still, I haven’t altered my Google or Facebook behavior. And I am far from alone.


My Kingdom for a Dancing Eggplant Emoji

So is WeChat poised to take over the world outside China, the US included? Perhaps. Via Skype, Natkin noted that “Tencent is very focused on user experience.” The app rarely crashes or freezes, and users are notified when their messages reach their destinations—so “they can have a greater sense of reliability.”

My own experience with the app confirmed all that. And I was sold on the idea of being able to text with friends in China for free. With such a huge user base, chances are if you know a Chinese person, in China or anywhere else, they’re on WeChat.

I was also intrigued by the voice messaging feature, which lets you shoot voice messages back and forth without the “press 1 to listen” nonsense of traditional voicemail. The messages appear on your phone just like text messages, and users can see how long the message is before tapping on it—thereby sparing them my least favorite aspect of voicemail: getting ambushed by a pointless, ten-minute ramble.

My first day with the app, I sent voice messages back and forth, walkie-talkie-style, with a Chinese friend in Beijing. It takes me ages to type in Chinese, and him in English, so voice messaging afforded us the most communication we’d had in two years.

When even that became cumbersome, we switched to live video chat instead. He waved his phone around to show me his new apartment, told me he’d quit smoking, and caught me up on his plans to climb Mount Emei, a Buddhist holy site. Unlike on Skype, which is throttled in China and prone to skips and starts, the connection was clear.


After we hung up, I decided to try out the social aspects of the app, which garnered a lot of buzz for WeChat when it first came out in January 2011. First, I tested the “Shake Shake” feature: I shook my phone and was matched with another user shaking his phone at the same time, somewhere else in the world. I found myself looking at the profile of “boy wong” in Malaysia. I scrolled through his “Moments”—photos and text posts similar to Facebook Timeline or Instagram posts—and, although I enjoyed his many snapshots of beer, I decided his abundant pics of rain meant he was too emo. I didn’t message him.

What WeChatting looks like: At the bottom, a voice message,
with an indicator of length. Higher up, a sleeping bunny.

The Shake feature is also good for exchanging contact info with people you meet in real life. A roomful of people can all shake their phones, and everyone’s profiles will pop up. Add each person’s info with a tap.

Next, I tapped on the “Look around” feature, and was shown the profiles of users near where I live, in Brooklyn. Most seemed to be male Chinese-speakers, though a few were female or non-Chinese. One guy’s profile message said “don’t think too much” in Chinese. A young Chinese woman said in English, “I’m a pet lover. Looking for other pet lover.” A profile belonging to someone named Ivan Jin Fang read, “Did I ever showed up in ur dreams? I wish I do.” I looked through Ivan’s “Moments” and there was a selfie at the gym, a few pics of him and friends eating birthday cake, and a lot of pictures of sushi.


In the evening, a girlfriend in New York sent me a text via WeChat to tell me D’Angelo was performing at Brooklyn Bowl. This was followed by a 10-second sound clip, allowing me to appreciate his smooth stylings from the comfort of home. A few hours later, I got to messaging with another friend in Shanghai, and when I said I was going to bed, he responded with an animated gif of a bunny climbing under the covers and falling asleep. It made me happier than I ever thought humanly possible.

Friendly Fire

If the sheer joy of one girl in Brooklyn were the only metric for measuring WeChat’s potential, the app would be a surefire worldwide hit. But a few things are holding it back, aside from that pesky little government surveillance thing.

For one, WeChat is similar to two other Asian competitors that have also mushroomed in popularity: Japan’s Line, and the Korean KakaoTalk. WeChat has China’s sheer numbers advantage, but unless you have a lot of Chinese friends to stay in touch with (or have a raging Chinese fetish), there’s no strong reason to choose WeChat over the others. Plus, Line and KakaoTalk have some real-time, VoIP [voice over internet protocol] based voice call features like group calling that WeChat doesn’t (so far).

Having 300 million users is all well and good, but as the Wall Street Journal notes, analysts are “focused on when the company will begin to make money off the application.” Tencent knows this: CEO Pony Ma said earlier this month that the company is introducing micropayment features and mobile social games (which Line already has, and KakaoTalk rolled out last month).


Natkin, the Beijing consultant, thinks that Tencent may also want to launch real-time voice call features that work as well over 3G as Line's and Kakao's do. (Right now, WeChat's only work well via WiFi.)

But in China’s cutthroat business environment, a move like that could bring down a company by virtue of its own success. WeChat enables users to communicate a ton without using too much bandwidth or call time. That’s great news for users, but it means less money for China’s powerful, state-owned telecoms operators, China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. Those operators are starting to express discontent.

“They’ve already intimated at several conferences and forums that applications like WeChat and Skype are a considerably bigger threat to the operators than their rival operators”— that’s to say, each other, said Natkin. “It's never great to start to eat too much of the entrenched state-owned enterprises’ lunch, & that's a direction that WeChat is beginning to head in.”

In China’s business environment, WeChat could be brought down by virtue of its own success.

The Big Three operators, with their not-always-aboveboard government connections, can squash any would-be tech star that dares to fly too close to the sun. Natkin said this would involve making things even more of a bureaucratic nightmare for competitors than they already are. For example, they could persuade China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to classify certain of WeChat’s services under categories requiring a different type of license, thereby preventing it from offering those services.

“In the past what they did with VoIP was say they needed to do these ‘trials’ with each of the telecoms operators, and the trials just went on and on with no end,” Natkin said.

The Chinese government already does a lot of roundabout handicapping of foreign companies that make the mistake of getting too big inside its borders. Take Google: People trying to load Gmail and other Google services from within China often find their internet speed slowed to a crawl, or stare at a screen that loads indefinitely. The connection is actively being throttled by the Great Firewall, China’s internet censoring apparatus, and Google’s is just one example of many. Given this environment, it may not matter whether Tencent censors international messages or hands over sensitive user information to the Chinese government. WeChat could be shot down by friendly fire.

In the end, my philosophy about putting myself in a position to be surveilled by the Chinese government is a little like my attitude towards sharing personal data with Facebook and shredding my financial statements before tossing them in the trash: I aspire to be disciplined, but past indiscretions have left me so deep in the hole that I‘ve already semi-given up.

I’m wary of WeChat, or any Chinese app, spelunking through my phone and internet accounts. I’m wary of any app that mines my data, from any company or place. But as one friend felt moved to voice-message me via WeChat at 7 a.m. recently, “Dude, WeChat fills me with so much joy.”

I sent back a thumbs-up emoji in agreement. I didn’t care who was watching.

Lead image via Atelier