A few weeks ago, an Internet freedom researcher asked me: What were the most significant developments in the Chinese Internet in 2013? My answer: The rise of WeChat as a social media and communication platform. She spoke with several scholars and media workers in Hong Kong and mainland China who felt the same way.
At a December 2013 forum entitled “How the Government Can Improve Governance Through Better Communication” at Fudan University, one conclusion was: WeChat has replaced Weibo as the main platform for opinion-making in mainland China.
According to the findings of an audience study released at the forum, the Internet is the second most popular medium among citizens — television remains the first. On average, an Internet user in mainland China spends 2.92 hours online. The three most popular online tools are (in descending order) chatting tools, news sites, and search engines. Users’ primary motivations are “searching for news and perspectives that cannot be found on TV and radio”; “getting access to insider information”; and “maintaining ones’ own social circle”.
People's Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Unit director Zhu Huaxin （祝華新）pointed out that, while government mouthpieces and authorities have successfully dominated Weibo, WeChat has replaced Weibo as the most important platform for public opinion making. He warned against the further repression of speech on public platforms like Weibo, arguing that “when public opinion is formed on private communication platforms like WeChat, social discontent cannot be relieved.”
The latest figures from Tecent show that WeChat's had over 600 million users in October 2013, about half of whom are active users. In February of 2013, Sina Weibo's registered users numbered roughly 536 million, but with less than 50 million active users.
The popularity of WeChat is related to its integration with people's need to communicate and their impulses as consumers. It has multiple privacy settings ranging from Peer to Peer Chat, to secret groups, open groups, public platforms where people can subscribe to friends’ news feeds. WeChat also offers a payment system that connects users’ bank accounts to apps for all kinds of online and offline transactions.
Despite the fact that WeChat is notorious for its spying practices, many Chinese activists are using the tool for communication.
Radio Free Asia recently interviewed Wang Zhang, the founder of an online forum on Chinese Discursive Power to comment on the censorship practice of Weibo and WeChat. Wang pointed out that WeChat seldom deletes post, whereas Weibo censors regularly screen and delete posts, creating a chilling effect among users. For many, Weibo largely has been turned into an echo chamber for official patriotic memes like “Without Motherland, You are Nothing” or public relations campaign such as Chinese president Xi Jinping's recent steam buns meal.
However, Wang is also aware of the fact that sensitive posts on WeChat may not be delivered to his contacts. WeChat user Hua Chunhui reported on Twitter that WeChat has also set up a “report” system for “illegal content” through which he witnessed a critical piece of information vanishing from his group chat timeline.
A human rights lawyer told Global Voices that even though activist circles know that they are under surveillance, WeChat is still a better platform for activities like community building. Its privacy settings can filter away 50 cents [government paid online commentators] and infiltrators whose mere aim is to disrupt communication.
Wang Zhang told Radio Free Asia that with the ideology battle that has been underway since August 2013 and the criminalization of “rumor mongering” in September, both liberal opinion leaders and ordinary netizens have withdrawn from the Weibo public sphere and migrated to WeChat or other private platforms. As WeChat becomes more influential in forming public opinion, Wang worries that freedom on WeChat will shrink.