WeChat: A Government Tool

The past few decades have seen China embrace the tenants of Capitalism to jumpstart the country’s economy, a tactic that has led to impressive growth in gross domestic product. Such a sustained effort has led many Westerners to shift their view of China as being more in line politically and closer in ideology to a Western country than is actually the case. The reality is that China is utilizing a Capitalist-style market for the economic benefit of the nation with no intention of discussing a change to the one-party Communist government. Just one visit to China is enough to see that certain rights that are held in high regard in Democratic societies, such as personal privacy, are not as well-established.

Saturated with Surveillance

Walking down the street in Xiamen, Shantou, or Shanghai, one cannot help but notice the proliferation of security cameras throughout every city block and staring down on every park bench. At first, it seems nice that if anything should happen such as a mugging or purse-snatching the thief will likely be found before the following day. However, after a few days one cannot shake an uneasy feeling staring into the black lens of camera after camera, seemingly leaving no blind spot in any urban area. Such an experience naturally leads to further thought about surveillance in China. Eventually, while staring into a mobile device screen, WeChat takes center stage.

A Digital Approach

Before entering China, it is recommended to download WeChat, a government subsidized social media platform developed by Tencent, to your mobile device as an alternative to popular instant messaging and social media platforms owned by Facebook and Google. Those companies’ products are banned in China and you will be unable to access them. At face value, this already seems a bit strange. However, it isn’t until the app is installed and its features are explored that it becomes obvious why the government stifles all competition for WeChat; the app provides an all-encompassing, streamlined log of its’ users’ daily lives. Users post on their public blog, instant message their friends, pay for services, read the news, and even find dating matches all within WeChat. With nearly 900 million active users, the Chinese government has access to an unprecedented amount of personal data through this single mobile app.

Social Credit

Although the United States is not without its faults in the realm of data collection, through legislation as well as corporate action by Google and Facebook, things are moving in the right direction. In the case of China, a plan has been announced to put the data collected into action. China has proposed a social credit rating system that encompasses everything a person does, rather than simply paying their bills on time. Access to specific schools, housing, day care, etc will be determined by everything from your online purchase history to the tone of your instant message conversations. With the broad range of activity performed on WeChat alone, it would not be too difficult a task. One of WeChat’s largest competitors, Alipay, already has a credit system in place named Sesame Credit that brings rewards but also doles out punishment to Alipay users. This system claims to be focused on bringing about greater financial accountability, and stresses that members must opt into the program. It seems clear enough, however, that such a service is merely a preclude to the far more impactful nationwide system. Suddenly the surveillance cameras seem a bit trivial.

 

By: Steele Hull