WeChat appears to be central to modern life in China. It has grown from being a simple instant messenger service into an all-consuming app that offers a mobile payment service, news and content platform, e-commerce hub and much more.
It has more than one billion active users and almost all of them are in China or the Chinese diaspora. Its estimated reach into the Chinese smartphone user market is 83%, rising to 92% in major urban areas, according to data from eMarketer.
So, why are many young Chinese internet users choosing to quit WeChat? According to a report in the South China Morning Post, the answer is ‘privacy’.
“I rely on my intuition, and it tells me that finding mass surveillance unacceptable is the right attitude,” one former WeChat user, Wang Zizhen told the paper.
“I don’t have any secret dealings or illegal activity on WeChat, but [working] in IT I find [the lack of privacy] particularly uncomfortable,” another former user only identified as Stephen, added. “This is a communications software and most importantly, user data should be protected.”
It is WeChat’s abuse of user data which they object to so strongly. Unlike services like WhatsApp and Telegram, WeChat does not offer end-to-end encryption. This means that it is relatively easy for user data to be accessed.
CCP’s WeChat surveillance
But even more worrying is the extent to which Tencent, which operates WeChat cooperates with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and willing hands over user data and content to them.
CCP officials have the right to read anything you put up on WeChat. And they frequently use this power. WeChat content has led to many criminal charges in China, such as the case last year when a private joke on WeChat about Islamic State saw a man from Beijing jailed for nine months.
There are countless more examples of people either having their WeChat accounts blocked, being arrested, and even facing charges because of content put up on WeChat.
For many young Chinese internet users, enough is enough and they are willing to put up with the inconvenience of not using WeChat can cause in China to protect their online privacy.
Instead, they are turning to these popular western messaging services such as WhatsApp. They are all blocked in China of course, but by using a VPN such as NordVPN, Buffered VPN, or ExpressVPN, they can get around this censorship and access these services as usual.
Should Taiwanese people avoid WeChat too?
So, what should Taiwanese internet users be doing? Many choose to use WeChat either to keep in touch with friends and family in China or when they are traveling there themselves for business or on holiday.
If you are keen to keep your online activities private, the best advice is to delete WeChat from your device now. Anything you do on their app will be accessible to the CCP, but there are also question marks about what other information the WeChat app is able to gather from your device.
Our recommendation would be to use a VPN to access other instant messaging services and your favorite social media services in China. And, if you know others living and working in China, advise them to do the same.
“New acquaintances don’t really believe it when I tell them I don’t use WeChat,” Wang Zizhen told the South China Morning Post with a grin. “I have to physically show them my phone’s apps to prove I’m not lying.”
But more and more people in China are waking up to the importance of online privacy and the risks that come with exposing all of their online activity to CCP scrutiny. Wang may be one of the first, but data suggests he is setting a trend that many more Chinese internet users are likely to follow.