Manga, mooncakes and monkeys: the curious world of China’s WeChat

  • WeChat is one of the most versatile forms of social media
  • It is much more than a messaging app: it acts as platform for everything else, including social sharing, payment, free video calls and a thousand other functions, but it comes with its own set of pitfalls
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 9:51pm

I’m working on a transaction in a WeChat group called “Project Titanium”. One of the group members is a WeChat newbie: an Old Etonian corporate partner in my firm. WeChat has an English version, so he can use it perfectly well. What he finds disconcerting are the images of the participants: a grinning cartoon girl; a happy giraffe; a tank in the desert; a manga boy flicking a V; Geronimo; a plate of stuffed dumplings; Rembrandt with a mooncake … but the people behind these images are all high-flying businesspeople, bankers or lawyers, and they wear sharp suits in real life.

WeChat is one of the most versatile forms of social media in the world. Unlike China’s equivalent of Google, a search engine called Baidu which is stuck in 2001, WeChat is as good as anything in the US. Its messaging service is second only to WhatsApp, and has a user base of around a billion. But WeChat is much more than a messaging app: it acts as platform for everything else you might want to do, including social sharing (like Instagram), payment (like ApplePay), free video calls (Skype, FaceTime) and a thousand other functions. On my last trip to Shanghai, my mother-in-law used hers to unlock a bike. Even court proceedings have, at the judge’s request, used WeChat’s text and photo-sharing features for evidence submission.

How WeChat became China’s everyday mobile app

The name is telling. Chinese society prefers the collective to the individual, the public to the private, and therefore the first person plural to the first person singular. The ubiquity of WeChat is astonishing and, to some, scary. Doom-laden Western news articles reveal how Tencent, which owns WeChat, can store users’ data without restriction, and how the Chinese government can use this data. It is mostly for security reasons that people don’t use recognisable images on their profiles.

I have been using it for around five years, cautiously “adding” close friends and family at first until I now have hundreds of contacts, many of whom I can barely remember and who probably can’t remember me. Yet if they want to see my cats sitting by the fire, they can do so at the touch of a button in my “Moments”, and then they can “like” it – or perhaps start a conversation about how cosy it looks or how I’m ruining the environment. Their comments will only be seen by people who have “added” those same people to their own WeChat groups.

In reality you’re more likely to be exposed as a truant from work on Facebook than you are on WeChat. You can easily exclude people from your own group from seeing a particular post. Of course there’s always a risk that someone in your group will see a post in which you criticise your boss and then forward it to her – but snakes like that will get you one day anyway, even without WeChat.

China orders Tencent to clean up pornography on WeChat

Mimi Zou of Oxford University has analysed many of the cases where this sort of thing goes badly wrong and results in legal liability. But it can be funny when it goes wrong – a group of us went on a mountain trip in Zhejiang province. One of us, a partner at a global consultancy, who told his colleagues he was on a business trip, found himself in a scenic photograph shared on a bank manager’s “Moments”. Since they had many contacts in common, the photo was seen by some of his colleagues: mild embarrassment, rather than disaster.

Since most people on WeChat don’t use their real names, you have to write in their real name yourself. This comes with its own perils – you might be at a networking event and scan several people’s QR codes, only to find later that you now have a “Mighty Motherland” and “Fairy Twinklewand” in your contacts, with no idea which business card matches with which name. And I can imagine the pain of someone who has collected two new WeChats in a bar or at a party and forgotten to write in the names in time, with no way of knowing later which was the pleasant one and which the horrible. And you can’t work it out from their Moments: nowadays people opt to show just three days of Moments, so the odds are you’ll see a landscape, some pairs of feet in the sand, and end up none the wiser.

I’ll “like” anything – even a baby holding a pencil captioned “budding artist?” There are a few things I can’t bring myself to “like”: photos of bottles of expensive wine (yes I get it, you’re richer than me), and even worse, political toadying. One person in my WeChat book, supposedly an academic at a famous foreign university, took it upon himself (or herself – you see, I’m not giving you any clues) to post praise for Xi Jinping’s speech on China’s economy being like an ocean, not a pond. I didn’t block that person or write a rude comment underneath – well done me. Though I did tell everyone I know what a doofus the poster is.

Why China’s tech-savvy millennials are quitting WeChat

Another pitfall for the unwary is the informality of WeChat messaging. Formality is reserved for emails, which are usually topped and tailed and often written in English if there’s a foreigner in the group. WeChat business conversations are informal and in Chinese and don’t require salutations. One-to-one conversations can quickly become more personal than is appropriate for business acquaintances, even intimate. This can be odd when the same person who is wishing you sweet dreams, with a cute little snoozing puppy GIF is also, in a separate discussion group, fighting tooth and nail over a share purchase agreement.

WeChat has so far failed to take off in non-Chinese markets, which is no surprise given the security scares. But there is a strong possibility this will change. Foreigners who use it certainly seem to like it

Perhaps in a few years, the whole world will be using pictures of food or cartoon monkeys as our profile pictures.

Now based in London, Nicolas Groffman lived and worked in China for nearly two decades