Tencent has ambitious global plans for its WeChat messaging app, but a new crackdown from China’s government could undermine its efforts to entice Western users to the service.
The Chinese government has started an initiative to “clean up” instant messaging services, China Daily reports. WeChat stands to lose the most from this new effort, simply because Weixin — the version of WeChat offered in China — is the most popular chat app in the country. Other messaging services which will be affected in the Chinese government’s latest project include Alibaba’s Laiwang, Xiaomi’s Mi Talk, and China Telecom’s Yixin, among others.
Although Weixin and other messaging apps are primarily used for private communication, public accounts haven’t escaped the eye of the Chinese government’s censorship mechanism. The newspaper cited a statement from China’s State Internet Information Office as saying that some people have made use of instant messaging platforms “to distribute illegal and harmful information, seriously undermining public interests and order in cyberspace.”
According to the statement, the project is aimed at public accounts, which are typically owned by either individuals or organizations seeking to communicate on a wider scale to their followers — in a similar way to Facebook’s pages. The government will focus on stamping down accounts which are determined to spread rumors and information related to matters including terrorism and pornography, as well as those involved in fraud.
The China Daily report cites the statement as saying: “We will firmly fight against infiltration from hostile forces at home and abroad.”
A representative for WeChat tells TNW it is unable to comment on the matter at this moment.
In the long run, the government’s actions could actually be beneficial for Weixin, given that making use of a public platform to spread rumors won’t do good for its reputation anyway. However, as Weixin is the only one out of the crop of Chinese messaging services pushing for overseas expansion via its sister product WeChat, this could cast a shadow on how global users perceive it.
It must be made clear that WeChat and Weixin stand as independent and separate products under the same parent company. “WeChat is designed for international markets while Weixin aims to serve users in Mainland China, and as such are operated on separate infrastructures and supported by different teams,” Poshu Yeung, vice president of the international business group at Tencent, emphasized in an interview with TNW last year.
Amid aggressive global marketing (such as launching an advertising campaign fronted by football star Lionel Messi), WeChat surpassed 100 million user accounts outside China in August last year. This year, it passed the 100 million download mark on Google Play internationally.
It was recently revealed that WeChat and Weixin have chalked up a combined 396 million monthly active users. This just trails behind the world’s most popular messaging app WhatsApp, which has 450 million monthly active users and 1 million new sign-ups each day.
In its earnings report, Tencent said it “continued to drive user engagement” for the app internationally, but stopped short of naming any specific countries. While Weixin continues to dominate in China, the larger question is whether WeChat it can challenge apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in the West.
The presence of the Chinese government’s censorship mechanism, though it only affects public-facing accounts in China and across the whole industry, not only Weixin, still casts a shadow upon such expansion plans — particularly in the West.
Yeung had told us earlier this year that he sees the US as the hardest market to penetrate. With the Chinese government’s latest round of censorship efforts targeted at the messaging service, it could make WeChat’s job even harder.
With internet users in the West wary of cyber spying and censorship, particularly in the wake of NSA leaks, it can become harder for WeChat to convince users that the Chinese government won’t touch the overseas version of Weixin, after this latest round of censorship efforts. It can also lead to paranoia that the Chinese government could reach beyond public accounts into private communication.
What’s more, there is always a possibility lurking that the Chinese government could also target public accounts based overseas but with a reach into China via WeChat. This could potentially lead to a lot of lines blurring — which could be a contributing factor to why companies like Weibo and Baidu aren’t that aggressive in taking their businesses overseas.
It remains to be seen how Tencent will fend off the Chinese government’s threat to its overseas expansion, but it can’t be denied that this will introduce some reluctance on the part of Western users to trust it entirely. WeChat has to be prepared to come up against such concerns as it seeks to persuade overseas users to choose it over other existing messaging apps.