Everyone in our group downloaded WeChat before our trip, and I initially thought of it only as a convenient, unblocked texting service for travel in China. But when we arrived, I began to understand how popular WeChat really is with locals. Nearly every phone-starer I passed on the street or subway seemed to be fixated on it. Having just seen “The Circle” in theaters before leaving, I realized the Chinese-developed app had practically achieved the same goal as the fictional tech company in that film: a unified online identity for every task imaginable. Chinese of all ages use WeChat for texting, voice and video calls, file sharing, in-person payments, online shopping, gaming, business communications, and social networking. While we didn’t scratch the surface of these capabilities during our trip, we loved the easy group chat interface and still find ourselves sharing pictures and using the app daily.
Wherever we went in China, we saw QR codes encouraging patrons to follow businesses on WeChat, from tiny fruit stands to traditional restaurants to international brands. Chinese businesses of all types also take payments through WeChat Wallet, which has propelled the country into a largely cashless society leapfrogging past the credit card era the United States is in today. Since WeChat replaces several apps popular in other countries, it’s already reducing market share for iPhones; China’s large population can rely on WeChat for everything regardless of what device they access it on. It will be interesting to see how this China-based app–which has no counterpart on the other side of the firewall–will change the global tech market.
Having just completed a course on how technology can improve communication between citizens and governments, I found myself most curious about how WeChat could impact civic engagement in China. I noticed some state agencies promoting their WeChat accounts as sources of basic information, like transit updates or safety campaigns. I also noted that the Wallet includes a tool for “Public Services,” perhaps reflecting a shift toward citizen-oriented transactions that many U.S. governments are making as well. I plan to follow WeChat’s development to see whether the app incorporates any other civic tech elements, like a form for feedback on proposed public projects.
We also heard from many of the NGOs we met with that WeChat is a primary channel for communicating with potential donors, clients, and partners. Our speakers gave examples of left-behind children keeping in touch with their migrant worker parents, of women’s advocacy groups connecting and sharing their messages, and of workers learning more about their rights from one another–all via WeChat. Even with government censorship of posts and comments on Moments (WeChat’s newsfeed), I think the app’s pervasiveness and expanding list of functions mean it is bound to help shape the way Chinese communities interact with government agencies, social service providers, and each other.