What happens in WeChat's private chats isn't staying there, and it has the government worried.
- By Bethany Allen-EbrahimianBethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a Tea Leaf Nation Fellow at Foreign Policy. Before joining Foreign Policy, she lived and worked in China for more than four years, including one year studying at Peking University in Beijing. Allen-Ebrahimian holds an M.A. in East Asian studies from Yale University and a graduate certificate from the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.
"Life is just like WeChat: you never know which friend will try to sell you something next." Thus wrote one Chinese blogger, bemoaning the proliferation of peer-to-peer commercialism on WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese. It’s China’s hottest social network, a mobile chat application which revolves around small invite-only groups called "friend circles." For users like him, May 21 brought good news when Chinese Internet giant Tencent, parent company of the messaging platform with somewhere north of 300 million global monthly active users, announced new regulations placing limits on users’ ability to sell goods through their friend networks. But the move, and the drumbeat of negative state-media coverage that preceded it, hints at increasing encroachment from government authorities determined to clamp down on China’s active online sphere.
The wording of Tencent’s latest announcement — that friend circles are composed of "networks based on relationships of acquaintances" and are not "platforms for business" — closely mirrors that found in a recent state media blitz targeting several of the platform’s most important features. A May 3 article on state news service Xinhua implied that WeChat exploited human relationships and "human weakness" to make money off its popular gaming platform, noting that game revenues topped $96 million in 2013. A May 6 article on the service called "WeChat, how much longer can I love you?" claimed that many feel the messaging service has "taken their lives hostage," to quote one pseudonymous user. On May 13, Xinhua weighed in yet again, reporting that netizens had collectively denounced the so-called "WeChat ‘like’ trap," in which users become inundated with endless requests for likes, sometimes even falling victim to scams promising prizes such as free travel in exchange. And on May 20, the day before Tencent announced the new restrictions on friend circles, party mouthpiece People’s Daily ran two articles: one in its print edition asking whether users would "flee" WeChat friend circles and another online suggesting that users be wary of what have become "commercial circles" where "WeChat merchants" prey on friendships and human relationships to scalp a little cash.
Far more than a messaging platform, WeChat has boosted its revenue by offering public accounts for businesses as well as online payment, elbowing into e-commerce territory dominated by giants such as Alibaba’s e-commerce site, Taobao. But individual users of private WeChat accounts have gotten in on the action as well. As state media has reported prolifically in recent weeks, this has contributed to an increasing commercialization of friend networks, with some users feeling bombarded by constant advertising. The practice has its benefits: Some family farms have begun selling their produce via WeChat friend circles, allowing them to fetch a higher price for their produce; one e-commerce analyst wrote on his verified account on Weibo, China’s Twitter, that the new restrictions on friend circles may have "killed an opportunity" to challenge e-commerce giant Alibaba. But other users welcomed the new restrictions as a way to limit the increasing commercialization of friend circles. One complained, "Every time I get on WeChat, the marketing is overwhelming." Other users felt that the restrictions represented an unnecessary over-reach, with one user writing it was authority’s way of "declaring its status."
Indeed, the new regulations may have political underpinnings. Social media platforms toe a precariously thin line in China, and WeChat is no stranger to crackdown. On March 13, some of the WeChat’s highest profile public accounts, often called "self-media" because they allow users to publish uncensored articles once daily to subscribers, were closed without warning, and little explanation other than having "violated rules." While the government views social media as a useful window through which to monitor public opinion, authorities also fear the power of social media to spread politically sensitive information as well as to mobilize dissenters into mass movements. In August 2013, China launched an "anti-rumor" campaign, including rules which make it illegal to post "rumors" – i.e., politically undesirable content — that get shared more than 500 times.
Chinese state media has already delineated a direct link between WeChat’s friend circles and the spread of rumors. On April 16, the People’s Daily penned a sharp criticism of the platform, claiming "incorrect speech and social rumors" on WeChat were making it difficult for users to "judge between true and false." The article complained that friend circles, unlike the public and searchable Weibo, made it difficult to gather statistics on how many times a message had been forwarded. "Suppose that every WeChat friend circle has 100 people," went the argument. "If each of these 100 people forwards a message only once, the number of forwards can reach 10,000." That’s the inherent power of social media, and it’s what seems to discomfit Chinese authorities: What starts in a friend circle may not stay there.