We Chat is China’s most popular messaging app. Since its inception in October 2010, WeChat has grown into the most popular mobile app in China with over 1 billion monthly active users who chat, read news, play games, shop, pay for meals and post their their views and pictures. According to the South China Morning Post: You can even book a doctor’s appointment or arrange a time slot to file for a divorce at the civil affairs authority. We Chat laid the foundations for stellar growth at Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings, the tech giant behind WeChat and QQ, turning it into one of the most influential companies in China and grabbing the attention of global investors. Since the official launch of WeChat in January 2011, Tencent’s market capitalisation has risen over tenfold. [Source:Irene Deng Celia Chen, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2018] [Source: Irene Deng Celia Chen, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2018]

WeChat is known as Weixin in China. For many Chinese consumers, it is part of daily life. It helps them to pay bills, organize tasks, order delivery food and call a taxi. Official records from 2021 said that about 54 percent of WeChat users spent a minimum of ten to 30 minutes per day on the app. Research has shown that many corporation find this multi-use app crucial in maintaining their business operation and competitiveness in China. WeChat had 1.2 billion monthly active users in the first quarter of 2020 and 619.6 million average daily active users in September 2018. There were 400 million daily active users of WeChat Mini-Programs in the first quarter of 2020). WeChat’s penetration rate among 16-64 year olds in China was 78 percent in October 2018. [Source: Tony DeGennaro, Dragon Social, 2020; Lai Lin Thomala, Statista, February 14, 2022]

Tony DeGennaro wrote in Dragon Social: WeChat is an all-in-one messaging app. Users can get almost everything they need from their within the app, leading to its classification as a “Super-App.” Due to these reasons, it’s risen to become the most popular social media in China. WeChat offers far more than any of the Western messaging apps. In terms of comparison, it can be likened to a combination of the Chinese Facebook, Whatsapp, Google News, Tinder, and Pinterest combined. It also contains ten million third-party apps called WeChat mini-programs.

Beginning of WeChat

Irene Deng and Celia Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post: WeChat” began life in a southern corner of the country at the Tencent Guangzhou Research and Project centre in October 2010.” When Tencent’s flagship messaging service QQ was the dominant player in social media in China, Tencent founder, chairman and CEO Ma Huateng [know as Pony Ma] did not rest on his laurels. He spotted the inevitable shift in traffic from PCs to mobile internet in 2010, as smartphones led by Apple’s iPhone, gained in popularity. Ma knew that a mobile instant messenger would be the key to the future. [Source:Irene Deng Celia Chen, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2018]

“Allen Zhang, the head of QQ Mail Mobile in 2010, led a team with less than 10 members to develop the first version of WeChat in less than 70 days, beating out two other internal teams working on the same project. Zhang joined Tencent in 2005 when his Foxmail business was bought by Tencent and became the head of QQ Mail Mobile. “WeChat is a strategically important platform for Tencent because it will help to sustain and evolve our social leadership from PC to newer mobile devices,” Martin Lau, president of Tencent, said in 2011.

“The first version of WeChat only allowed users to send text messages and photos. The launch received little response from the market, at a time when instant messengers such as Feixin, an SMS app by China Mobile, and MiTalk Messenger by Xiaomi, were already on the scene. “It cannot send a short message to someone’s phone number (like Feixin). It does not have the functionality of QQ. What’s the meaning of having this app,” one user wrote in the comments section on WeChat’s iOS app store in 2011, rating WeChat one star.

WeChat Becomes Popular as New Features Are Added

Irene Deng and Celia Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The inflection point for the WeChat team arrived in May 2011 when it was updated with voice messaging, enabling a user’s phone to work like a walkie-talkie. Daily user growth spurted from 10,000 to up to 60,000. “The voice message [function] turned senior businesspeople who weren’t used to typing on smartphones into our WeChat users,” Ma recalled in a speech in Tsinghua in 2016. [Source: Irene Deng Celia Chen, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2018]

“WeChat evolved quickly, including new functions such as ‘Shake’, which connected users who were randomly shaking their phone at the same time, and ‘Message in a Bottle’, which enabled messages to be sent to random users. In July 2011, it added location-based service ‘People Nearby’ that allowed users to connect with strangers close to them. In Zhang’s words, this was a “game changer” and pushed daily user growth to 100,000. “Shake and Message in a Bottle as well as People Nearby were born at the right time, offering access to different people,” said Lu Shushen, a former WeChat employee in an article on his WeChat account, referring to social networking among strangers.

By March 2012, WeChat had exceeded 100 million registered user accounts — just 433 days after launch. WeChat users grew in tandem with smartphone growth in China. In 2010, when WeChat was still a research project, there were only 36.1 million smartphone unit sales in China. That number increased to 90.6 million in 2011 when WeChat was officially launched and had rocketed to 214.2 million by 2012.

“But WeChat was growing even faster than this and was gradually leaving its competitors further behind. Feixin, for example, was reluctant to open up its messaging service to non-China Mobile users and MiTalk struggled to provide a stable user experience. WhatsApp, WeChat’s biggest overseas rival today, was available to the Chinese market at that time [it was later banned by China in 2017 ahead of a major Communist Party congress] but missed its opportunity without any localisation or promotion in the market, China Channel’s Brennan recalls.

Early WeChat, Meeting Strangers and Prostitution

In 2013, US-China Today:“Tina Peng’s phone kept sounding off alerts during her lunch break in the local noodle shop. In between taking bites of her food, she texted feverishly and shook her phone several times. Within five minutes, a young man joined her table and they sat talking and eating together. They were complete strangers — connected and introduced to one another by Weixin — a mobile app that took China by a storm. [Source: Chia-Ling Melody Yuan, US-China Today, February 14, 2013]

“Weixin has attracted a largely young user demographic through its highly integrated methods of communication and SNS network connections. 76 percent of Weixin app users are between the ages of 22 and 30, the same age group most active on the Internet and social media groups. The main functions of Weixin include Text messaging Voice recording and messages File sharing (photographs, video clips, photo edit functions also available) Video calls Find users in your vicinity and become their friends Post photos to a timeline that friends can see ‘Shake’ the phone to chat with a stranger ‘Throw a Bottle’ via a text or voice message to the Weixin community and potentially get a response.

“Intrigued by the ability to meet strangers and also send easy voice messages to friends, the app was downloaded in staggering numbers. Weixin transformed the way in which the Chinese communicate and has also caught the attention of many corporations seeing potential for digital social media marketing. "I get bored easily," says Peng of her social life. "I use Weixin to keep me informed and meet new people. I use it all the time."

In 2014, Business Insider reported: “Tencent shut down 20 million WeChat accounts — five percent of the total number of the messaging service's users — because they offered prostitution services, the company said. Tencent also shut down 30,000 public fake accounts. Weixin, the version of WeChat offered in China, has 396 million monthly users. Tencent dubbed the shutdown "Thunder Strike," and it comes just a month after the Chinese government announced its initiative to "clean up" instant messaging services like WeChat. [Source: Maya Kosoff, Business Insider, June 10, 2014]

“WeChat announced last week it would start to "protect [WeChat users'] experience and interests" by closing down fraudulent and illegal accounts. Many WeChat users use the three-year-old instant messaging service as a news source, but some people have used them to distribute illegal information, "seriously undermining public interests and order in cyberspace," said a statement from China's State Internet Information Office.

We Chat Grows Into China’s Most Popular App

Irene Deng and Celia Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post: WeChat evolved “into a hybrid social network, with the introduction of its sharing service Moments, the blog-like Official Accounts to help brands and content producers market themselves, and a games publishing platform. [Source: Irene Deng Celia Chen, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2018]

“WeChat added payments to the platform in 2013, and for a while this was limited to paying for games, virtual items and services such as mobile subscriptions. But when ‘Official Accounts’ were added to WeChat in 2013, Tencent’s management were hoping that this would transform WeChat into a full service platform. Any WeChat user can set up an Official Account to broadcast messages and articles to their followers like a blog, but brands and service providers can also use these accounts to service customers. Today users can buy products, order meals or make a doctor’s appointment — among many other things through this channel.However, while WeChat Pay got off to a relatively slow start, the game was about to change in a major way.

“Before the Lunar New Year of 2014, Tencent co-founder Tony Zhang assigned a WeChat team member to improve the way Tencent traditionally handed out hongbao — red envelopes with money inside as a gift for Lunar New Year — to staff. As a result, the WeChat Red Packet was developed as a way to send “virtual” money to friends.

“WeChat’s Red Packet became an overnight sensation during the 2014 holiday period with over 8 million Chinese receiving over 40 million hongbaos during the period, leading Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma to dub it the “attack on Pearl Harbour”. Users started to tie their bank accounts to their WeChat mobile wallet and it started to compete with Alipay — an already established mobile payments service from Alibaba Group Holding, parent of the South China Morning Post. In 2018, 688 million people used WeChat’s hongbao service on Lunar New Year’s Eve.

Decline of Weibos and the Rise of WeChat

From 2009 to 2013, Weibo was the most popular forum in China. But in 2013 in an attempt to quiet public debate, the government cracked down on some of the forum’s most prominent verified commentators, nicknamed the Big Vs, accusing microbloggers of spreading false statements and detaining them.“This prompted some Weibo users to leave the site. At the same time, Weixin was quickly gaining popularity as free alternative to text messaging. [Source: Alexandra Stevenson, New York Times, December 21, 2014]

By 2014, Weixin (WeChat) was the most popular forum in China. When the Chinese government cracked down on Weibos, Tencent upped the ante on Weixin so did a lot of things that Weibos did plus a lot more, and it took up the slack and more after Weibo declined. In 2014, China-based Weixin and its international version WeChat together had 468 million active users. Weibo had 167 million active users. “I’ve been here four years. In that time I’m now on the third dominant social network — first it was Renren, then Weibo and now it’s WeChat,” Chris Jones, the executive creative director at the ad agency Wunderman in China, told the New York Times.

Matt Schiavenza wrote in The Daily Beast:“Since its creation in 2011, WeChat, an application developed by Sina’s rival Tencent, has replaced Weibo as China’s go-to web service , and has — if the China Internet Network Information Center’s numbers are accurate — siphoned off 34 percent of Weibo’slost users. The two services are not identical: Weibo essentially functions like Twitter, while WeChat is like a combination of What’sApp, Instagram, and Skype. Nevertheless, WeChat has emerged as the hotter product in a China where obtaining a wide following online has lost much of its appeal. As Charlie Custer, a journalist who writes about Chinese technology at Games in Asia http://www.gamesinasia.com/ writes, “Weibo is a publishing platform, in essence, and WeChat is a chat platform. One is for talking to the world, the other is for talking to your friends." [Source: Matt Schiavenza, The Daily Beast, January 25, 2014]

“WeChat’s other advantage is even more basic. According to Xinhua, 70 percent of China’s new Internet users use cell phones to go online, a market that cheapsmart-phone manufacturers like Xiaomi has come to dominate. And WeChat — with its wide range of services and simple, intuitive interface, has become an essential app for these newly wired millions. “The circles formed on Wechat are smaller and more intimate, and are mostly among friends and acquaintances,” says Helen Gao, a writer and Beijing native. “It allows you to message them, follow their activities, and speak to them more easily than Weibo does.”

WeChat Users, Parents, Kids and Advertisers

Alexandra Stevenson wrote in the New York Times: Liu Xuelong, a television and documentary producer in Beijing, hasn’t used his television in years. He gets all of his entertainment on his iPhone 6 Plus, where he also taps a plethora of apps to buy plane tickets, pay bills, talk with clients. Weixin is among his favorites. “Every morning the first thing I do when I wake up is log onto Weixin to see what new things my friends have shared online overnight,” said Mr. Liu, 25. [Source: Alexandra Stevenson, New York Times, December 21, 2014]

“Weixin’s particular quirk — that users communicate only with friends and contacts within their circle — has allowed companies to develop direct relationships with consumers. But it also poses a challenge since users have to first choose to include a brand within their Weixin network. The fashion house Burberry worked its way into consumers’ circles by giving users a chance to watch its Autumn-Winter 2014 runway show in real time, along with commentary from designers and celebrities watching the show. To get access to the show, users just had to add Burberry’s public account to their Weixin network. Once Burberry is in their network, the fashion house can target users directly in the future. One interactive feature prompts users to click on “My Burberry” and type out their initials. An image of a monogrammed bottle of perfume then appears, along with details of how to buy it.

In 2014, Oreo began Play Together, a campaign that riffed on the idea that children don’t spend enough time with their parents, a subject of debate in China. Collaborating with Weixin, Oreo created an app that allowed parents and their children to take photos and turn them into playful emoticons to send to friends. The campaign also featured a television ad for the Weixin campaign in which a mother and her daughter play together and share a bag of Oreos. As part of the media blitz, it used celebrity dads from the popular reality television show called “Father, Where Are You Going?” to promote the campaign through their own microblogs.

“Television, too, helps bridge the generational gap. Even though Chinese consumers are highly connected, not everybody is getting the messages that brands are sending. Mr. Liu’s father is one of them. Mr. Liu bought a Samsung smartphone for his father, who lives in Weifang, a city in Shandong Province, and taught him how to use Weixin so that they could video-chat. But it could be a while before his father gets the hang of Weixin, Mr. Liu said. “I am the only friend in his Weixin contact list, actually.”

We Chat Mini Programs

Irene Deng and Celia Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post: In 2018 WeChat introduced mini programs “aimed at keeping users within the WeChat ecosystem, at a time when short video apps were on the rise. In June 2018, the percentage of time spent on messaging apps among mobile users declined from 36 to 30.2 percent compared to the same time in 2017, year, while time spent on short video apps rose from 2 to 8.8 percent, according data from QuestMobile. [Source: Irene Deng Celia Chen, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2018]

“Mini programs refer to applications typically smaller than 10 megabytes that can run instantly on the main app’s interface. They offer speed of access to users because a program does not have to be downloaded from an app store, they can run from within the app. This innovation allows platforms to host multiple services, turning them into super-apps, delivering greater convenience to consumers in the world’s largest smartphone market.

By enabling greater functionality within the WeChat ecosystem without the need to download an external app, mini programs are aimed at driving customer loyalty, or stickiness, within the WeChat app. “We view mini programs as an enhancement of our Official Accounts system, designed to connect offline service providers with users online,” Tencent’s Lau said in 2017.

“The concept of mini programs did not fully take off until January 2018 though when Tiao Yi Tiao, a jumping mini game, recorded 100 million daily active users after being launched in late December 2017. “We have had our ups and downs this year, but in general, I think we have met our initial expectations,” said Tony Zhang in a January 2018 interview in the People’s Daily.

“By the second quarter of 2018, the number of WeChat mini programs reached one million and mini program users surpassed 600 million in June 2018.“The mini program initiative is opening many doors for Tencent,” said Matthew Brennan, managing director of independent WeChat consultancy China Channel. “Monetisation due to adverts and payments … and by allowing [Tencent] to incubate and accelerate a variety of businesses within the ecosystem — e-commerce in particular.”

WeChat Business and Monetization

Tony DeGennaro wrote in Dragon Social: “There are different types of accounts on WeChat. Personal accounts are used by individuals, while businesses can create WeChat official accounts to stay in contact with their customers and post promotional information. To learn more about how to use WeChat for business check out the blog below: WeChat Mini Programs, apps that run within the WeChat ecosystem, have also been growing at a blistering rate. With DAU of mini-programs in China exceeding 400 million, these lightweight apps are becoming more and more popular with both users and businesses. [Source: Tony DeGennaro, Dragon Social, 2020; Lai Lin Thomala, Statista, February 14, 2022]

“Given that WeChat’s user base is concentrated heavily in China it’s easy to see why many users call it the Chinese Facebook. Chinese users spend an average of over 70 minutes a day within the app. The Chinese use the WeChat app for restaurant bookings, flights, making investments, shopping, paying bills, hailing taxis, transferring money, creating posts on their Newsfeed (called WeChat Moments), etc.

Aside from that, WeChat allows companies and celebrities to create official accounts to generate content for promotional purposes. Businesses can even implement CRM (Customer Relationship Management) functionality on their WeChat official accounts, allowing businesses to track and manage the contacts on their WeChat Official Account! This makes WeChat one of the most popular tools for social media marketing in China. Read more about this below.

WeChat allows for one-to-one personalized interaction between brands and users. This allows brands to communicate directly with their followers through the messaging functions on their account. This also allows brands to provide customer service directly through their WeChat account. It’s due to this reason that many companies in China don’t even operate traditional websites instead of focusing their efforts on constantly improving their WeChat official accounts. Tencent previously did not allow advertising as they focused primarily on building their user base. In recent years they’ve launched WeChat Advertising, allowing brands to advertise on WeChat with banner ads, influencer advertisements, and Moments ads.

Irene Deng and Celia Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post: “ As of 2018, Tencent was s still in the early stages of monetising its WeChat user base. “Cautious to avoid flooding user timelines with ads, WeChat currently allows a maximum of two ads a day to appear on its social platform Moments, which is “extremely conservative compared to our global peers” said Tencent’s Chief Strategy Officer James Gordon Mitchell in a May 2018 conference call with analysts. “With improving targeting capability, opening up of inventory and roll-out of ad formats, we expect increasing dollar shift to social performance-based advertising, of which Tencent … should be the key beneficiary,” Jefferies analyst Karen Chan wrote in a research note in July. Other analysts are also optimistic on WeChat’s prospects. “[WeChat’s user numbers] haven’t hit the ceiling yet but I think they will at some point,” said Matthew Brennan, managing director of independent WeChat consultancy China Channel. “But they still have a lot of room to grow in advertising, and now with mini programs.” [Source: Irene Deng Celia Chen, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2018]

WeChat, the Global Chinese Community and Government Surveillance

According to the New York Times: “WeChat is used widely around the world, particularly by people of Chinese descent, to communicate with friends, read news and carry out business transactions.” It “spans Beijing’s system of internet filters, connecting communities within and outside China. Exchange students use it to keep in touch with their families, investors use it to broker deals, and diaspora communities rely on it to keep in touch with relatives. Within China there are few alternatives to WeChat, because most other international messaging apps are blocked. [Source: Ana Swanson, Mike Isaac, Paul Mozur New York Times, August 7, 2020]

“Over the years WeChat went from copycat chat app to a force all its own. Crammed with services that enable online payments, e-commerce orders and other services, it grew into an inspiration for Silicon Valley. Companies like Facebook followed some of its cues in adding features to their own messaging apps.

“Yet WeChat has also long been used by the police in Beijing to track dissidents. More recently, the app has emerged as a data conduit for the newly empowered internet police, who examine discussions for signs of political disloyalty. The app is also heavily censored, turning it into a sort of state-controlled filter bubble. Rumors not acceptable by Beijing are quashed, while others are left to spread.

WeChat as a Muckraking and Breaking News Platform

In 2019, David Bandurski wrote in the China Media Project: WeChat, can potentially provide an avenue for writers and journalists to expose malfeasance — something we have seen far less in China under Xi Jinping than we did prior to 2012. [Source: David Bandurski, China Media Project, January 5, 2019]

“First, we have an expose by “Ding Xiang Yisheng” that alleges that Quanjian, a company marketing various drug regimens, including cancer treatments, has cheated unsuspecting customers, mostly the poor. This follows another big WeChat story earlier in 2018 about tainted vaccines making it onto the Chinese market. Both of these stories, says one media expert, are cases of “knight-errant journalists” who were formerly with traditional media, such as newspapers, finding a way to pursue stories in the tougher media environment of the “new era.” We’re not holding our breath — after all, our other stories here are mostly about tighter controls. But the “Ding Xiang Yisheng” is important to note.

Other pieces of breaking news came from the WeChat public accounts “Middle Class Life Observer”: and “Huaxia Investigations”: The WeChat public account “Media Observer” reported on January 3, 2019 that a number of key Party-run newspapers, including the flagship People’s Daily, Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily, and Zhejiang Daily, started out 2019 with makeovers, including page reductions and the introduction of new columns and other features.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2022

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