Michelle Song, 24, studies international relations at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University and lives in a dormitory, so she doesn’t watch television regularly and doesn’t subscribe to newspapers. But this has not hampered her ability to keep up with the headlines: Like many Chinese, Song uses her smart phone to forage for breaking news. Over the past year, she’s increasingly come to rely on a new tool: WeChat, a social messaging app owned by Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings Ltd that was launched in January, 2011. The free download has quickly become a leading news source for many web-savvy Chinese. ”It’s definitely better than just having traditional media,” said Song, who agreed to be quoted only under her English name. Not only is there “more information,” but WeChat offers her “more in-depth material and more diverse viewpoints.”
WeChat’s emergence as a news-sharing tool has much to do with its reputation as a place where people can easily transmit sensitive content that can’t be seen elsewhere because of China’s tight news and Internet censorship. WeChat has proved to be an ideal environment for so-called “self-media”: news feeds on a wide variety of topics that are created, or at least collated by, individuals and small groups with no media organization to fund them — or censor them. This emerging environment was shaken Thursday by the sudden shutdown of dozens of WeChat news feeds, a move that many interpreted as an attempt to rein in the platform’s freewheeling spirit. (A Tencent spokesperson told Foreign Policy that the company was continually working to limit “spam, violent, pornographic and illegal content,” even though most of the targeted feeds focused on politics.)
The culling of so many accounts, melodramatically dubbed the “WeChat Massacre” by some Chinese media, was chilling — but it wasn’t fatal. By Friday, one of the blocked feeds, produced by corruption-busting reporter Luo Changping and with a following of 245,000 users, was already up and running again. More than anything, the crackdown and the immediate public outcry that followed — some netizens posted sobbing emoticons — underscored just how relevant and influential WeChat’s news-sharing function has become, and how hungry Chinese readers are for self-media.
Self-media’s reader appeal goes beyond content. The WeChat experience provides a frisson that other platforms lack, a thrill redolent of Prohibition-era speakeasies when would-be drinkers needed to know a code to get in the door. Because WeChat doesn’t provide a directory of news feeds, most become popular via word-of-mouth. For users, happening upon quality feeds enforces a feeling that a user is in the know. After following an account, a user gets a welcome message and once-daily updates. Instead of being a disadvantage, this rationing creates a rare bit of anticipation in an on-demand world.
Arguably the most appealing function is a loophole that effectively allows circumvention of Internet censorship. When Luo wrote on Feb. 22 about the crackdown on personal secretaries linked to former security czar Zhou Yongkang, whose name is a forbidden term online, Luo sent subscribers an audio message introducing the topic without explicitly mentioning Zhou’s name. Luo instructed users keen to know more to reply with the keyword “secretary.” Readers who responded got an automatic reply containing the article about the corruption investigation, a piece that probably would not have lasted long elsewhere on the Chinese web.
The sense of intimacy is mutual. Song Zhibiao is an editorial writer for the outspoken Southern Metropolis Daily and he also runs Old News Commentary, a personal WeChat feed that has about 12,000 followers. Just before midnight on March 13, the day that news of the WeChat crackdown broke, Song sent a message to his followers requesting they reply with the keyword sihuo, meaning “Life or Death.” That got back a meditation on the push-pull nature of the Chinese Internet and Song’s own bleak assessment of what lies ahead. “The future of the Internet is certainly dark, but for a long time it has been creating a false sense of hope,” he wrote.
It was a heartfelt post, more personal than the pieces Mr. Song writes for his employer. This is what he likes so much about the medium. ”You might have 60,000 readers if you publish through a newspaper, but you’re not able to have effective interaction” with them, Song said by telephone from the southern megalopolis of Guangzhou, where he lives. “On WeChat, you might only have 10,000 followers but you have a much stronger connection.” In other words, WeChat is “smaller, but it has more value.”
Song also likes that his WeChat readers, unlike the readers of his Paper Tiger blog, which focuses on media analysis, send him cash donations. It’s far from enough to quit his day job, he says, but he will occasionally receive payments from fans as high as $80. Most self-media accounts include instructions for how to contribute. Others make money by putting advertisements in their news feeds. The financial incentive has helped spur the growth of new accounts and motivated content producers to attract readers and keep them happy.
On Friday, Beijing-based dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu posted an essay arguing that with each successive crackdown on Internet content in China over the past 20 years, netizens have not withdrawn, but simply sought out new platforms. ”As someone put it jokingly, they were like swarms of locusts in search of an oasis to settle,” Mo wrote.
Some now imagine the next oasis to be self-media smartphone apps. Xu Danei, a columnist for the Financial Times, recently launched the Xu Danei Tabloid app for iPhone, iPad, and Android. The service costs about $1 per month for a once-a-day feed. Xu said by phone from Beijing that it brought him $4,900 last month. That may explain why when fans noticed Xu’s WeChat account among those blocked this week, he appeared to take it in stride. ”Show support,” he wrote on Weibo. “Download the app. Ha ha.”