Tea Leaf Nation

A Chinese ‘No Thanks’ for WhatsApp

313 million netizens don't need the just-acquired chat tool -- they think they have a better one of their own.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The tidal wave generated by the Feb. 19 news that Facebook paid a whopping $19 billion for the San Francisco-based mobile messaging app WhatsApp has reached the other side of the Pacific, but many Chinese social media users are befuddled at the deal’s astronomical valuation. Some users of the popular Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo say they believe WhatsApp is "clearly an outdated product" with an "ugly and simplistic interface." It’s not just that WhatsApp experienced a 210-minute outage on Feb. 23. Chinese also have a better option at their fingertips: WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese, the mobile messaging app that Chinese Internet behemoth Tencent launched in 2011. Compared with WeChat, which had an estimated 313 million users by December, WhatsApp is "totally not as fun and user-friendly," wrote one poster on Weibo.

That’s probably not what Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to hear, if any fraction of the stiff price tag for WhatsApp and its roughly 450 million active users reflects hope that the app will help open up the Chinese market to the social networking giant. Unlike the blocked Facebook, WhatsApp can be freely downloaded in China. But the app is unlikely to appeal to WeChatters, who have stayed loyal despite the introduction of a slew of Chinese clones and regional competitors like LINE, popular in Japan and Taiwan, and KakaoTalk, popular in South Korea.

WeChatters’ loyalty has been well earned, as WeChat already provides a richer user experience than WhatsApp. Not only can users message one or a group of friends using text or voice — functions WeChat shares with WhatsApp — but users can also post photos in their circle of friends much like they would on the Facebook wall, place video calls, read the latest news articles, pay for online purchases, play mobile games, and, in some Chinese cities, even hail a taxi.

WeChat is also more social: Users can shake their phones to see others in the same area who have also enabled this feature, allowing them to meet new people. (Before WeChat became massively popular as a social connector, young people used it to find one-night stands.) But WeChat also manages to erect a bit of a barrier around its interactions: Unlike WhatsApp, users of WeChat can only be messaged by people they have added to their contact list, a feature that stymies spammers. And WeChat does not have the default "last seen" tag on WhatsApp that makes it more difficult for some users to hide their online status.

That’s not to say WeChat is close to perfect. WhatsApp users may prefer the simplicity of their app — more complex is not always better. And WeChat’s barriers that ring-fence conversations are far from impenetrable. It’s easy to impersonate a user’s friend to gain entry into otherwise private circles; much more significantly, users have to deal with the ever-present prospect of government surveillance, a possibly fatal obstacle to WeChat’s international ambitions. In fact, Beijing may be monitoring WeChat users around the world, though Tencent denies it.

Nonetheless, financial services firm Barclays has estimated that $30 billion of Tencent’s $140 billion market value is for WeChat — which translates into roughly $95 per user. By contrast, the $19 billion that Facebook paid for WhatsApp works out to roughly $42 per user. The market has spoken, at least for now — and like many Chinese people, it prefers the power of WeChat, flaws and all.

 Twitter: @rachel_tln

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