WeChat Speakeasy Economy

For an app with over a billion users, WeChat doesn’t make a very strong first impression.

When I first opened WeChat for freshman orientation at Indiana University (IU), I was surprised at how haphazard it was. The design looked outdated and drenched in a hideous shade of green. Even basic navigation was illogical and confusing. We already knew that WeChat is the cornerstone of China’s online life and perhaps the most powerful app in the world. was this?

WeChat is relatively unknown to most non-Chinese college students. The only non-Chinese people who use it are usually those who have specific ties to China. has become a portal to There, thousands of Chinese from Southern Indiana converge to create their own social community and economy entirely via WeChat channels.

WeChat is basically a messaging and social media app that includes the functionality of almost every app you have on your phone today. For users not based in China, WeChat may just serve as a messaging app to contact friends who currently live in China. The rest of WeChat’s many other features can be found in “Discover” and “Me”. The Discover section includes social media feeds, verified business and personal accounts, and thousands of mini-programs that work as apps within WeChat. These programs range from bike rentals and online shopping to travel and luggage delivery. Most of the companies and apps are domestic companies in China, but major brands such as Airbnb, Lego, Yves Saint Laurent, Aldi, Air New Zealand and thousands of other international brands are using these mini programs to You can connect directly with your customers. To completely avoid the company’s website for viewing or ordering.

The real power of WeChat lies in the ‘Me’ tab within the wallet, which combines a user’s bank account, identification and, most recently, health information. With all this information integrated directly into his WeChat functionality, the app’s functionality extends to nearly every service imaginable. These include food delivery, bicycle rentals, train tickets, utility bills, health certificates, car purchases, investments, charitable donations, and thousands of miniature apps that extend WeChat’s functionality to just about any service imaginable. including (but not limited to): To pay in-store, simply scan her QR code at the cashier or hold the account barcode up to her WeChat and scan it with a barcode reader.

If you’ve never explored WeChat, using one app to take up most of your screen time might seem silly. But in China, this kind of deep cross-cutting function is taken for granted.

During my first year at Indiana University, I was left out of many of the features WeChat had to offer. This was because I didn’t have a Chinese bank account in addition to owning the international version of the app. (For data privacy reasons, WeChat downloaded outside China is slightly different and lacks many features of the domestic version.) And most importantly, learn enough Chinese to understand the features. My lack of reading ability.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to visit China for the first time while studying at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Experiencing WeChat as more than just a messaging and social media app gave me an idea of ​​what true digital convenience can look like. From automatically displaying restaurant menus after the app determines my location, to putting all transportation from A to B on his one screen, WeChat has made my digital life almost simple. Simplified into one app. Immersing yourself in the world of WeChat took some getting used to.For example, no interaction with restaurant waitstaff, This was a new experience as all orders and payments were done via WeChat, apart from food delivery and clean up. Scanning her QR code on WeChat has become as common as a handshake, with group chats for every combination of class, occasion and friend group.

When I first returned from China and experienced the wonders of WeChat, I decided to visit Bloomington to experience more of the Chinese culture and social scene. Scanning the community-oriented QR codes on the windows of many of Bloomington’s Chinese stores and restaurants for links to their ‘channels’, my feed is instantly populated with local events, local Chinese farmers Newsletter from, filled with posts about used luxury cars for sale. , the daily specials of countless restaurants.

Through a friend’s recommendation and a wave of forwarded QR screenshots, I found the ultimate in Chinese convenience in Bloomington. He was able to deliver a fresh coconut smoothie and piping hot dumplings to his library desk within 15 minutes. When I asked about the virtual kitchen, the girl who brought me a smoothie with a Hello Kitty rucksack quickly left.

As my Chinese improved and I became more involved in WeChat-centric student life on campus, I gradually began to understand why WeChat is essential for Chinese living abroad. Apart from the obvious communication with friends and family back home, WeChat provides overseas Chinese with a direct link to many of the creature comforts they miss at home. Similar to Facebook groups for US expats and immigrants, WeChat also provides a support network that provides access to services such as US tax filing assistance and Mandarin therapy. For me, it provided a way to stay connected to China.

After graduating from Indiana University, he moved to Munich, Germany, where he works full-time in consulting. A quick search of various official accounts and a quick chat with some of the Chinese visa applicants standing side by side with me in the foreigners office quickly opened yet another secret her WeChat world to Munich. I was. It’s filled with expat groups, grocery delivery services, and German immigrants. Lawyers, and yes, more gyoza dealers.

For some in the international community, WeChat’s appeal to Westerners may be troubling. Strictly abiding by China’s data security laws, WeChat uses parent company Tencent’s servers to automatically detect certain sensitive keywords and images in content, allowing users to identify sensitive information to the Chinese Communist Party. Prevents the spread of topics that are viewed as This is often done without the sender or recipient knowing that it has actually been censored. Importantly, non-Chinese Tencent data sent between her two accounts does not have to comply with mainland China’s Internet security laws. India has already banned the app in response to these concerns, and the US is moving in the same direction, but the Biden administration’s approach to the issue remains unclear.

But if WeChat is blocked in the US, it’s not just the app that you lose. WeChat’s overwhelming nature reflects Chinese culture itself. WeChat makes you feel like you’re on the pulse of the Chinese-speaking world. That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye out for the constant promotional spam messages that fill group chats and the app’s huge, unfilterable social feeds. It is a taste of the convenience of Chinese technology and a ticket to the hidden world of overseas Chinese communities and economies. While I enjoy secret delivery services and invitations to events, I am extremely grateful that WeChat has provided me with a better understanding of my own culture and daily life in China. I really hope to return to this country someday.

Aaron Corbett is a recent graduate of Indiana University and currently lives in Munich, Germany.

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