With more than a billion users, Chinese social media platform WeChat has been described as a digital Swiss Army Knife –- not only for its multifunctionality, but also for the potentially harmful ways in which it could be used. The app appeared on the market in 2011, and, by 2018, had become the world’s largest mobile phone app. First named Weixin, the app was renamed WeChat to attract the global market.
The “superapp” combines services provided by companies such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Venmo. Anchored in the daily life of hundreds of thousands, it includes not only text, voice and video messaging, but also video games, photo and video sharing and editing. WeChat lets its users broadcast their location, share contacts via Bluetooth or QR code, and update one’s friends with “Moments.” Even more, it features online payment facilities, allowing users to purchase products, transfer money to others, and settle bills. Third parties can also develop ‘apps within the app’ to sell goods and services.
While messaging giants Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp enjoy a similar number of users, they do not offer the same array of services.
In China, the app has even surpassed email as a means of communication, and in terms of online payments, only comes second to the market leader, Alibaba’s Alipay.
WeChat is no stranger to controversy. The Chinese government tracks every interaction and post on the app, as part of its mass surveillance program: The app can divulge the content of communications, contacts, and location histories of its users to the state. And, whenever the app is used abroad, the data transmitted to China gets analyzed by the nation’s authorities. Moreover, China has WeChat censor certain political topics and news from outside the country. In 2020, it censored information concerning COVID-19 at the outset of the pandemic.
Several countries have, or have attempted to, ban WeChat for consumer privacy or national security reasons. In June, 2020, India banned WeChat after a border dispute with China, claiming the app posed a threat to the privacy of its users. Taiwan likewise expressed concern that private communications were being monitored.
In September, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump attempted to ban WeChat from the United States through an executive order, which was blocked by a preliminary injunction by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, invoking the First Amendment and citing the lack of national-security concerns posed by the app. (Trump’s ban was signed alongside an order against TikTok and ByteDance).
Beyond the international legal realm, Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, was given a score of zero out of 100 in 2016 by Amnesty International with regards to the protection of its users’ human rights and privacy, especially that the app does not use end-to-end encryption of interactions between users.
Despite its convenience, WeChat remains a strong tool of social control for the Chinese authorities, who not only uses its data to monitor citizens but also sometimes to take action against them. This May, Citizen Lab wrote that WeChat monitored chats arising from outside China, and, in August, Radio Free Asia reported that the Chinese police used data provided by WeChat to identify and imprison Gao Zhigang, a friend of U.S.-based Chinese activist Geng Guanjun. This was not the first time China leveraged WeChat data to go after dissidents: Human rights activist Ju Jia, who was jailed for three years for sedition, suspects that the Chinese authorities used his messages to his friends as a proof to arrest him.
Yet there is a silver lining to this governmental intervention: during the pandemic, local authorities and Chinese embassies used WeChat to provide users updates about the virus, as well as traveling information. In the end, WeChat remains an indispensable link between China and the Chinese diaspora, enabling them to share stories, photos, and news. But this is a double-edged sword, as WeChat’s reach abroad could extend China’s global surveillance network and censorship power.