Take the subway, visit a restaurant, go for a stroll or snatch a look in the car beside you in traffic in every city in China and the likelihood is you will see someone peering at their smartphone. And if they are, what is likely grabbing their attention is a mobile text and voice communication app called WeChat, which has over one billion accounts and 806 million active users, but is largely unknown outside of China.
Freewheeling platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, along with YouTube and Google, but most of China's hundreds of millions of webizens don't miss them quite as keenly as they might, because WeChat is Facebook and Twitter rolled into one, with WhatsApp, Uber, Yelp and Tinder thrown in for good measure.
WeChat users can send messages, images, texts, music and articles to each other, using WeChat Moments, a news feed a bit like Facebook, but they can also make various peer-to-peer payments, including sending lucky red envelopes during the Chinese new year holiday. They can also pay their taxes, book cinema tickets and taxis or make doctors appointments.
So pervasive has WeChat become, that Chinese courts have been allowed to accept information culled from suspects’ social media postings as evidence in criminal cases as of October 1st.
The average user spends half their day on the smartphone, or even more.
May Wong (24), originally from Donegal, studied Chinese for four years and has been living in Beijing for two and a half. She works for the Atlas Blue property investment company.
“WeChat probably takes up most of my day. If I’m not talking to people, I’m sitting on the subway, or sitting at home, checking my messages, my groups, my WeChat Moments. It probably takes up way too much of my time, taking up what Facebook would have but Facebook is too much hassle,” said Wong.
“WeChat is like a bridge between WhatsApp and Facebook. The best thing is you can use WePay to book train tickets, flights, cinema tickets, everything,” she said.
Enda Winters, who works as a brewer for Beijing's leading craft brewer, Great Leap Brewing, can no longer imagine life without WeChat.
“I don’t know if there’s any business in China that doesn’t use it.
“It has filled a void. Every couple of minutes my phone is buzzing. We’ve built our processes to incorporate this,” said Winters, who comes from Termonfeckin in Co Louth.
WeChat, known as Weixin in Chinese, or “micromessage”, started out as a chat programme, but very quickly started adding different functions to the point where it is now completely central to the lives of millions of people.
Around 93 per cent of people living in the Tier One cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are registered users of WeChat. Half of them have their bank cards linked to WeChat.
“I mainly use it to read WeChat articles and find excellent writers,” said Haibo, a book editor, while Maimai said: “I use it to post photos, to shop and make payments, to make contacts, to send messages, for video chatting. Everything.”
The amount of use is staggering. Sunlin, a public relations executive pretty much uses it 24 hours, while Heqian, a product manager at Alibaba, said she uses it 12 hours a day.
Another young woman, Sissi, said: “I use it for work, of course, so at least eight hours a day. WeChat Moment and WeChat Wallet are important functions. I don’t think we Chinese are overly dependent on it, it is just an instant communication tool.”
WeChat is owned by the online company Tencent, and since its introduction in January 2011 it has come to dominate the online geography of China. The success of WeChat is such that Tencent has overtaken Alibaba as China's most valuable tech company.
The data for China’s online use is dizzying. The last data shows the country had 710 million web users, which is over twice the population of the US, and 92.5 per cent of them go online using their mobile phones. The reason there are more WeChat users than people online is because of overseas use and because many people have more than one account.
According to WeChat’s own data, gleaned from a survey of 40,443 netizens and phone users, most WeChat users are male, 40 per cent are company employees, 90 per cent use it every day and half of users use it for more than one hour a day.
Some 70 per cent of WeChat users use the Wallet function for transactions of more than 100 yuan (€13.40) every month. Seventy million of those users are outside of China, and WeChat has three million dedicated advertisers.
Like everything else in China, the government keeps WeChat on a short leash and WeChat has to follow the rules to avoid smashing into the Great Firewall of China, the system of controls aimed at stopping online dissent building up, as well as stopping pornography and other things seen by the Communist Party as online evils.
Beijing imposes strict controls on online content, and searches for terms such as “Tiananmen Square 1989”, “fresh air” or “Tibetan independence” can quickly bring you up against the Great Firewall of China. WeChat also censors user-generated content. The Great Firewall will end your WeChat experience very quickly if you’re not careful.