Get lucky this Spring Festival: WeChat adds sexy twist to red-envelope giving via mobile ahead of Chinese New Year

Users of Tencent’s WeChat app will soon be able to send virtual packets of cash to unlock blurred-out, and potentially racy, photos as it takes on Alipay in mobile money-sending

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 6:55pm

China’s selfie-mania and people’s desire to view racy content on their mobiles may prove another cash cow for Tencent’s WeChat in the next week or two.

China’s favourite mobile messaging tool has thrown down the gauntlet to Alipay by launching a gimmicky new function ahead of the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday to its popular service that lets users exchange virtual packets of digital cash in red envelopes.

Soon, users will be able to upload a private photo that will be automatically blurred. This serves as an enticement for others in their social circle to send over a red envelope - containing money or redeemable vouchers - as this is required to make the picture clearly viewable.

WeChat ran an hourlong trial of its newly upgraded red packet programme on Tuesday afternoon and over 18 million users joined in and uploaded photos, according to thepaper.cn.

“It was a lot of fun. Everyone I know was talking about WeChat’s red envelope photo topic,” said Liu Chunchun, a clerk based in the city of Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province.

“One of my friends earned dozens of red envelopes for her photo. She wrote an enticing caption that read ‘Come to see my secret honey’. But actually, it was just a photo of her cat.”

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The service will officially go live on February 7, or Chinese New Year’s Eve, WeChat said.

Other contacts can monitor their progress to see how many envelopes they garner, adding an element of fun and competition. They can also post comments.

WeChat is operated by social and gaming giant Tencent while Alipay is a third-party online payment platform run by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. The two behemoths form part of the BAT triumvirate, three so-called kingmakers of China’s internet including search engine Baidu.

It is traditional in China and Hong Kong for people to exchange red envelopes - hongbao in Putonghua or lai see (“lucky money”) in Cantonese - on festive occasions and especially the Spring Festival, the biggest vacation of the year that falls on Monday, February 8 next month but lasts for around a week.

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WeChat’s latest move comes hot on the heels of Alibaba’s announcement that it will work with state broadcaster CCTV to give away red envelopes containing a total of 200 million yuan (US$30.4 million) during the latter’s wildly popular New Year’s Gala. People can spend the money on the Alipay platform, dubbed the PayPal of China.

CCTV’s live broadcast has aired annually since 1984. Over 700 million Chinese people tuned in last year, local media reported.

Tencent launched the popular function that lets people send red envelopes in January 2014. Since then, hundreds of millions of Chinese, especially younger generations, scrabble on WeChat for as much digital cash as possible heading into the holiday by vying for the little red packets.

READ MORE: Even grandma is ditching hongbao for WeChat’s digital red envelopes as China goes into mobile gift-giving frenzy over Mid-Autumn Festival

The money exchanged over this period is estimated to run into billions of yuan.

“I felt so happy to see my photo earn a few red envelopes,” said marketing manager Wendy Liu.

“Even though most of them only contain a few cents, it shows how popular I am with my friends, and shows that they’re interested in my life and what I’m doing.”

Some 20 million red envelopes were sent via WeChat over the first two days of the Lunar New Year in late January 2014. This jumped to 1 billion for last year’s Spring Festival and 1.4 billion on August 20 2015, dubbed Chinese Valentine’s Day.

The much-anticipated programme saw a record amount of money exchange hands for last year’s Mid-Autumn Festival on September 27, with 2.2 billion red envelopes sent via WeChat in one day, according to Tencent.

These de facto digital vouchers can be used to make online payments on WeChat, like booking movie tickets or meals, topping-up phones, reserving air and train tickets, or hailing a cab using China’s market-leading app Didi Kuaidi, or even buying insurance or other financial products.