How to revolutionize lifestyles with a social media innovation

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A WeChat user scans a QR code to access government services on the Yueshengshi mini program in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province in south China, on July 22, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

In 1999, volunteers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in south China were told to walk into a bare room each to test if they could survive 72 hours inside without venturing out. The rooms contained just a bed, a roll of toilet paper, a sum of money in cash, an equal amount in digital currency and a dial-up Internet network. Two decades later, if a similar test is held, it will probably try to see if people can survive just seven hours without the Internet.

Back in 1999, the first volunteer who could place an online order to buy food got them delivered after five hours. By that time, he was starving. Shopping online and paying digitally took ages. The volunteers also grumbled that it was difficult to spend the money.

It's an entirely different scenario today. "With a smartphone, I think now we can easily do that in an hour," Yang Ming, a 29-year-old employee in the airline industry, told Beijing Review. Yang said if he takes part in the survival test today, he will buy everything he needs and while away the 72 hours at ease chatting with friends, watching videos and playing online games, doing all of this with just one app—WeChat.

Some 1.09 billion people use the app daily, Zhang Xiaolong, Senior Executive Vice President at technology firm Tencent and developer of WeChat, said at an annual gathering of partners on January 19. Every day, 330 million users make WeChat video calls and 780 million people use the app's Moments, a function to share images, texts and short videos.

"The value of WeChat is beyond numbers. It has helped us connect to each other and offers a wide range of services that changed all walks of life," Zhang Dingding, an Internet industry commentator and former head of Sootoo Institute, a Beijing-based research firm, said.

Way of life

The first thing Yang does after waking up in the morning is to check his messages on WeChat. He uses WeChat wallet to pay for his transport to work and on the way, reads the articles shared by friends on their Moments. Sometimes he takes a ride-sharing bike and pays the rental by scanning the QR code on it with his WeChat.

At office, he does much of the work using the desktop version of the app. In his free time, he shares music and links with friends via WeChat and when he is hungry, the meals are ordered and paid for on the app. "It has become an integral part of my daily life," Yang said.

In 2011, the year WeChat was launched, Yang was a college student in the southern province of Guangdong. On his first smartphone he downloaded it out of curiosity and soon became addicted to it. Since WeChat offers audio and video calls, he persuaded his parents, who live in Shandong Province in the east, to upgrade their phones and use the app for better and cheaper communication.

Liu Jian, an English teacher in Shenzhen, Guangdong, said the introduction of the hongbao in 2014, the virtual representation of the traditional red envelope used during the Chinese New Year to give cash gifts, turned his family into active users of WeChat. The innovation made it possible for relatives and friends to share virtual red envelopes across distances, keeping the tradition alive.

The WeChat wallet is another essential feature today. You can send or receive money through it anywhere. To send money, you need to link your bank account in China to WeChat.

Chinese and foreigners alike live on WeChat in China. Ary Joy, an Australian working in Jinan, Shandong, uses it to make new friends. Also, he creates WeChat groups for his family and friends so that he can contact the group in one go instead of having to message or call them individually.

The Chinese living overseas use WeChat to maintain ties with their families and friends back home. Lu Xiaohe, a PhD student in New York, the U.S., told Beijing Review though she hasn't been home for three years, she talks with family members regularly on WeChat and cherishes those moments. "Seeing my grandma's face every time I give her a video call makes me happy," she said.

With 19 million regular users in the U.S., the app is a vital bridge between the U.S. and China, a New York Times report said.

Donald Trump's administration had sought to ban WeChat in the wake of its trade war on China but WeChat users obtained an injunction, saying the ban was a violation of their right of free speech. The judge said if the app was made to disappear, there would be no viable communication channel between the millions of Chinese Americans and their friends, relatives and business partners in China.

Service platform

Every day, over 400 million people use WeChat's mini programs, an ecosystem of lightweight apps embedded in 2017, for a multitude of services such as hailing a taxi, ordering food and paying bills.

Lu said last December, she booked a health check as a new year gift for her grandmother. The instructions on the mini program were succinct and clear, saving her time and hassle.

Another mini program, Yueshengshi, launched in Guangdong in 2018, enables residents to access over 140 local government functions, as diverse as visa extension, making a marriage registration appointment and paying traffic fines. Yang has used it to apply for a digital driver's license as well as pay his social security dues.

In June 2019, the General Office of the State Council launched a mini program, enabling users to access over 200 services provided by six central government agencies, including the Ministry of Commerce, the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Justice. Individuals can use it for functions as various as search for legal assistance providers while companies can apply for licenses and certificates.

Transactions via the mini programs doubled in 2020, from 800 billion yuan ($123.2 billion) in 2019. By the end of last year, over 100 million users had made at least one purchase via mini programs, according to a WeChat release.

They have also played a stellar role in helping with novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) prevention and control. It was mandatory for everyone, with a few exceptions, to obtain their official health code on WeChat. The code is checked every time they enter a public place to ascertain if they have COVID-19 or were exposed to it in the past 14 days. So far, the health codes have been checked over 20 billion times.

Also, some 550 million have used a digital travel card that provides an overview of their itinerary in the past two weeks. This can be used to check whether they went to places that had or subsequently reported COVID-19 cases.

WeChat Pay Score is another function unique to individual users. It is updated every month based on people's shopping habits, payment records and credit. Those who reach a certain score can enjoy benefits from various businesses such as online car hailing, express delivery and room reservations without having to pay a deposit.

Yang said he has become accustomed to enjoying services first and paying afterward, thanks to his score serving as a guarantee of his creditworthiness.

Zhang Xiaolong puts the success of WeChat down to connectivity and simplicity: "Connecting people with other people, through content and services."

The flip side

However, all these silver linings are not without their cloud. A recent study by data provider China Internet Watch found that users spend an average of 77 minutes a day on the app. It accounted for 21.5 percent of total user time on the mobile Internet as of September 2020, according to QuestMobile, a mobile Internet big data company.

The growing time spent on the app is triggering growing anxiety in some people. Yang said sometimes he feels he has been "kidnapped" by WeChat. His boss uses the app to bombard him with messages and assignments. He finds he has been added to various working groups where more messages flood in, with more problems to be solved and more tasks to be completed.

Liu shares similar feelings. "It is taking up my personal time. I feel exhausted after the week's work and just want to switch off my phone and disappear from WeChat. But of course that's just wishful thinking," he said.

The app has other downsides as well. Like the rest of social media, it can be used by the unscrupulous and the gullible to spread fake news. During the epidemic, Liu's mother sent him articles on WeChat that said drinking alcohol can kill the virus that causes COVID-19. She asked him to start drinking alcohol.

He had to persuade her not to panic. "I asked her to block the WeChat groups that spread such false rumors," he said.

To address this, WeChat's developer has launched a mini program that refutes misleading information, citing experts from professional institutions such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences and official agencies.

Then there is the case of constant advertisements posted on WeChat to sell products ranging from imported infant formula to skincare products. However, Lu said she has noticed there are fewer advertisements since the first E-Commerce Law took effect in 2019.

As the digital economy grows, competition among the service providers is also getting fiercer. Another leading tech firm, Bytedance, the parent company of short video-sharing platform Douyin, has been locked in battle with Tencent on various fronts. In a recent move, Bytedance said on February 2 it has filed a case against Tencent for monopoly, alleging that Douyin links had been blocked on WeChat. It also said a team collaboration tool developed by it, called Feishu, has been blocked as well.

Tencent has denied the allegations and reportedly said it would countersue Bytedance for blocking WeChat.

"The lawsuit is the first real battle since regulators introduced new rules late last year targeting monopolistic business practices by tech firms, and it's likely to set the stage for a lot more litigation in the future," the Content Commerce Insider website commented. 

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