Tech and gadgets

How WeChat transformed modern China

How China's most popular app changed how the country does just about everything

It’s a regular ritual, talking to my family via video chat. Often, as I’m about to enjoy my morning cup of coffee in San Francisco, my phone will ping, with my father in China requesting to speak face to face (as it were) on WeChat during his nighttime. My dad is quite the savvy tech user: he has two mobile phones, each with its own WeChat account that’s associated with a different bank card. When it was my birthday, he sent me an RMB 88 red packet via WeChat, along with a birthday cake GIF, no less.

It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, my dad was apprehensive about connecting his bank accounts to a strange chatting app, not to mention using it to pay or receive money. ‘It’s too unsafe!’ he declared at the time, urging me to remove my bank card from my WeChat account. But how could I ever get used to life without WeChat? There was no going back.

Apart from socialising with all my friends and colleagues, I use WeChat to send documents to work clients. The app has made email all but obsolete in China. The other major function is how it works as an electronic wallet. On any given weekend in China, I might use WeChat to order and pay for a shared ride, buy a discounted movie ticket while I’m at it, then scan a restaurant’s QR code to pay for lunch, even pay for my electric, water and home phone bills. From convenience stores to roadside food stalls, every merchant is assigned a QR code that users scan with their phones to pay. It’s now normal to go out without any cash or credit cards.

To my surprise, this past Lunar New Year my dad asked me to help him link his bank card to WeChat. What changed his mind was WeChat’s red packet function, which has become the most popular way to give the customary cash gifts in China. Just tap on the red envelope icon in your chat box, and you’ll receive the renminbi given by the other person in your WeChat virtual wallet. The app has also become China’s top online payment method.

It’s hard to deny WeChat has done an outstanding job converting stubborn people like my dad, who now see it as a necessity as much as younger users. To me, WeChat is a low-cost tool that makes me feel like a real global citizen: connected, empowered, with all the resources I need at hand. It has us addicted – at least 889 million of us, according to the company’s latest report – and I don’t see us ever going back.

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