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Illustration: Timo Lenzen for Bloomberg Businessweek
The Big Take

WeChat Is China’s Most Beloved (and Feared) Surveillance Tool

This one app became so powerful that it could have posed a real threat to Beijing’s rule, the new book Influence Empire reveals.

Imagine for a second life before smartphones. Simple tasks—ordering takeout, staying in touch—become frustratingly difficult, never mind dealing with emergencies. In China that’s sort of what it’s like to live without WeChat. Despite its name, which makes it sound like a messaging service, this one app dominates almost every facet of a person’s daily online existence in China—banking, dating, gaming, music, shopping, social media. It’s one of the largest social media platforms, with more people actively using it than Twitter and Snapchat put together.

I live in Hong Kong and use WeChat routinely to connect with people on the mainland. On a typical evening before the pandemic, I messaged friends about where to meet for dinner, and they sent me the location of a diner. I hailed a taxi, listened to Taylor Swift, booked movie tickets to see Spider-Man, and then paid the taxi driver. At the diner, I scanned a QR code and perused the menu. We ordered, ate, drank, paid the bill, and hardly interacted with the waiter. On my way back, I booked a flight and hotel for my next trip and scrolled the latest news and celebrity gossip. All this time, I never left WeChat.