In The Art of Travel, 4. Politics, Shanghai by William Denning1 Comment

With the technology in Shanghai everything is simply easier. Leaving the house becomes irrelevant with the popularization of super apps, such as WeChat.

WeChat has everything you could possibly need in terms of life in China. It streamlines all of the processes which can be streamlined. Payment, food delivery, even dating. Using it makes me weary of returning to the states and fumbling with my credit card or cash. Finding that you don’t have exact change or that this place doesn’t take this card and that place is cash only. WeChat is used everywhere, from buying street food at the gate of a park to ordering a new laptop to paying for a cab. It suggests deals that are around you and, within the app, you can order your food before you sit down, make reservations and call cabs.

But there’s something slightly unnerving about the company. As someone who generally distrusts the interests of private companies, it has become more and more obvious to me the sheer amount of data that WeChat owner, TenCent, has about the Chinese people. This is the most data that anyone has gathered about a group of people ever. How they spend, where they go, who they talk to. It’s a sociologists dream and a disobedient citizens nightmare.

To explain this, I’m going to go through the information that the company would get on a typical Chinese citizen. Keep in mind that some features of WeChat are only accessible to Chinese citizens with a Chinese ID, and that one cannot have multiple WeChat accounts like, say, Twitter, because each account is linked to your Chinese ID and your phone number which are both linked to your identity catalogued within the state as well as your bank account etc.

You wake up and go to work. You swipe into the subway using WeChat, which logs the information. The subway here is different than that in New York as the fare varies based on the distance. Therefore, you tap going in and you tap going out. WeChat logs were you came from, when you came, where you went and when you got there.

On the way to work, you stop and buy a coffee, which it also logs what you bought and how much you spent, where you spent it and at what time. WeChat oftentimes knows every meal you eat and every place you go.

This goes a step further with Rachel Botsman’s ideas on the topic. She believes, with a lot of evidence, that the information gathered from the Chinese public is actually used to rank people socially, based on a core set of principles. Think about it this way: in America, we have a credit score. This credit score is basically a summation of our credit history and spending habits. Its a record that is kept about is in order to judge whether or not we are likely to pay back loans. Now, with more information, the government can further test the trustworthiness of it’s people.

As Americans, this gives us a very bad feeling. We don’t like the idea of being spied on, and we certainly don’t like to be judged based on information that we deem private. Yet, I often find myself questioning these anxieties. We don’t like being spied on, not because it makes us feel unsafe, but because we feel that it impedes our freedom. Yet, in a capitalist system where everything is mean too be ‘fair’, where every person is meant to be treated ‘equally’ and have ‘equal opportunity’, shouldn’t their place in the capitalist system constantly be moved toward the more accurate? Wouldn’t this prevent fraud? Make loans more lucrative? Oil the gears in the capitalist machine?

(Image: WeChat; Source:


  1. William, I have to say that I was beyond excited to read this post because while I have family in China and have lived there briefly in High school, I have never seen the monstrosity and convenience of WeChat thoroughly explored in writing. Your piece did not disappoint. I had never even thought about the ways in which WeChat’s data could be used as a way to measure reliability of citizens in terms of loans—I had only thought about the ways in which WeChat could measure and track anti-communist sentiment, or what an employer could have access to when reviewing job applicants. I don’t know if I was unable to find adequate analysis of WeChat because it hadn’t been conducted yet, or because I simply wasn’t looking hard enough in fear of what I would find. I loved your comment about WeChat’s data collection as a “sociologist’s dream and a disobedient citizen’s nightmare”. I couldn’t agree more about this duality. I wonder about all the other ways in which WeChat has the ability to interfere with people’s lives. What about those who do not have access to WeChat due to lack of privilege? Will they be completely invisible and left behind in a virtually leaning world? While I can understand how easy it becomes to have all of your necessities in one place— like one of those chic wallet-phone cases—there is the possibility of some loss here. How much are we willing to give up for convenience? Are we paying for convenience with our freedom?

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