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BUSINESS & TECH

Doing Business in China: WeChat Worms Way to Dominance of Business Communications

By Doug Young

As someone who has lived and worked in China for a while, I was quite excited when the month of September officially rang in a new era in which all roaming and long-distance fees were dropped by the country’s three mobile carriers. But it seems my excitement wasn’t shared, as the media and general public were strangely silent on the issue.

That got me to thinking, and it didn’t take long to realize that this seemingly significant development was really a nonevent, as such fees are almost irrelevant anyhow in the communications landscape of today’s China. That brings me to the subject of this week’s column; namely, looking at how businesses in China communicate these days.

Anyone working here will immediately know that communications these days have become dominated over the last two years by WeChat, the wildly popular social networking app that has moved well beyond its original function as a smartphone-based instant-messaging service. The app, owned by internet titan Tencent, had a staggering 963 million users at the end of June, meaning nearly everyone in China old enough to own a smartphone now subscribes to the free service.

To put that in perspective, China Mobile, the nation’s dominant wireless carrier, had a fewer 870 million subscribers at the end of July.

As a high-tech reporter, I’ve watched with fascination as WeChat has risen from nothing in 2011 to become an entity that’s really the equivalent of a Verizon or Vodafone, only with a fraction of the costs because it doesn’t own and operate a telecommunication network. Most of the other world’s other internet giants like Google and Facebook are trying to create similar networks, but none has come close to the near-complete penetration of a single major market the way WeChat has in China. That near-ubiquitous nature here has allowed WeChat to worm its way nearly unimpeded into the Chinese business world.

I did my usual polling to gauge the extent of WeChat’s presence in the China business communications market, and the voices were largely unanimous in saying what a critical tool it has become for them. That holds true not only for people inside China, but also anyone on the periphery who does frequent business with companies and individuals here. An interesting appendix is a certain degree of pushback that seems to be taking shape as people worry about too much reliance on a service that isn’t exactly trusted for its privacy protection, even though I’ve never read about any big cases of abuses in that regard. But more on that shortly.

More than instant messaging

First, let’s look at all the things that used to be done by traditional phone companies, often for fees, that have been taken over by WeChat and are now available for free. It’s hard to overstate how valuable a tool the service’s original smartphone-based instant messaging service has become for everyone in their daily work life. That’s especially true with the addition several years ago of a PC edition that makes the service available from desktop computers, much like a Skype or the old MSN Messenger.

As a reporter, I seldom contact my sources anymore by phone and instead send them messages most of the time via WeChat. That offers them the option to respond at their convenience, and also provides me with written records that can provide quotes and other details that I can easily slot into stories. That’s far more convenient than the balancing acts of the past in which I had to take my chances with a call and then awkwardly cradle the phone between my neck and shoulder while trying to take notes — if the person even answered the call at all.

The newer suite of services available over WeChat includes easy conference calling, again for free, from locations both inside and outside China. Then there’s the ability to set up groups for individual projects and teams, though one source noted the number of such groups and frequency of messages can get out of control if you’re not careful, which I can personally attest to.

There’s also the ability to send and receive documents, which led one of my contacts to say he seldom uses email for such functions anymore. A more-subtle element that one contact pointed out was the platform’s usefulness as a team-building tool. For example, he said, managers can toss out virtual money-filled packets into online groups of employees, prompting a mad scramble by everyone to “grab” the money first, creating a sense of fun and community.

Lest this start to sound like a big WeChat advertisement, I’ll close by noting some of the drawbacks and pushback against the service that I alluded to above. One of the biggest concerns is privacy, and a contact pointed that he never sends confidential documents over WeChat and often still uses the phone for talks on sensitive topics. Another contact said that top management at his company has actively tried to promote alternate services specifically designed for businesses, such as DingDing and Worktile.

Yet another one pointed out that WeChat also sometimes blurs the line between the business and personal, since contacts can also see each other’s photos and other personal posts to the platform. Personally speaking, I do think the service has probably reached a pinnacle in its development and will probably go through a transition period that sees many businesses lessen their dependence, most likely after a major outage or other crisis that exposes the dangers of too much reliance.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com.

 

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