gentle reminder from the folks at tencent

Like many population questions in China, the actual population of We Chat users is guestimated but unconfirmed. According to its app page, We Chat boasts over 300 million users or the population of the United States and growing. In news reports, the population has been posted at 200 million users.

Throughout this trip to the US, I have maintained my links with Shenzhen friends via We Chat. This makes me one of a fast growing — what? — group? Community? Chinese speaking chatty Kathies? If it were a country, the We Chat app population would be the 6th most populous country in the world (population clock). The app would have 2/3 the population of the United States, 1/6 the population of India, and 1/7 the population of China. And here’s the rub: the We Chat population is mediated by one company in Shenzhen.

All this information came to a head because yesterday the We Chat Product Team at Tencent gently reminded me and over  that:

Recently, the message that “We Chat will charge its users” has circulated on weibo. This is malicious gossip. We ask everyone not to believe these rumors. The We Chat Product Team states that it will not charge users, more we are currently developing new functions, hoping that We Chat will be more user-friendly and more fun.


The team sent the message to me via the We Chat app. I also receive news casts via We Chat. Each message includes a main article with a large image, and three small articles with a thumbnail. Headlines du moment are:

  1. A Bali Plane with 101 passengers sinks into the sea;
  2. Xi Jinping will see American Secretary of State, John Kerry, the Americans call the North Korean question the key issue;
  3. The husband of a Shanghai woman with Avian flu catches it, however its still not clear if people can transmit the disease to each other;
  4. Geng Yanbo was selected Mayor of Taiyuan City, Shandong, he was once known unofficially as “the Mayor who builds cities”.

Now We Chat has a smaller population than Microsoftlandia, which has boasted 750 million users worldwide. However, unlike Mircrosoft, We Chat as actual access to every user through their phones. Mine chimes and I know I have received a message. Moreover, this app is being used to feed me information and news. Thus, today, I’m wondering what it means that (a) I received this message while traveling in the States — indeed, these few weeks We Chat has my primary form of communication with Chinese friends, and (b) given the number of users, the message is itself news — in other words, We Chat has a “private” line to its 300 million users that sidesteps Government oversight.

the u.s. election and the 18th npc

I have recently hooked into “we chat (微信)”, Tencent’s latest social networking app. Point du jour is simple: Tencent regularly bleeps me news updates, so I can follow world headlines at a glance. These past few days, the juxtaposition of the US election and the 18th National People’s Congress has offered lessons in misreading and irony.

For example: On the eve of the US election, I received the following three headlines:

  1. Today’s topic: does the election divide or unite Americans? to be followed by
  2. The 38 delegations arrived for the 18th NPC and first in line were the farmer-workers (meaning farmers who are migrant workers) delegation, and then, just so you don’t forget that the US and China are not two sides of the same coin
  3. Microsoft will use Skype instead of MSN everywhere but the Mainland.

Now, I’m not sure how direct the comparison between the US election and the 18th NPC were to be. Clearly, while both are domestic rituals, they will impact people through out the world. After all, international chains of production and consumption (of say computers and software) have made the US and PRC not only important trade partners, but also jointly influential over the global distribution of production and consumption in disturbing ways. However, that direction of thought was not picked up by the news editors at Tencent. Instead, the implicit comparison was between the “divisiveness” of the US election system and the “harmony” of the NPC.

Here’s the telling moment: this series of headlines could as easily fit into a Fox Network summary as an explicit (and self-congratulatory) comparison between the “democratic” structure of American politics in contrast to the “homogenized” politics of China.

As any structural anthropologist could tell you, when symbolic systems are this easily converted, there’s a good chance we’re talking about moieties, a form of unilineal descent that involves the occurrence of descent groups in linked pairs which assume complementary positions and functions. In more traditional moieties, marriage is exogamous and involves women and men marrying exclusively from the matching group. However, moieties also engage in trade and other activities, providing the larger social context of extra- and intra-moiety relations.

This is me thinking about the growing interdependence, not simply material, but also ideological between the US and PRC. Our co-dependence is deep and worrisome because we’ve yet to see any evidence that we do anything but reinforce our own and each other’s blind spots.