The cat that sent me instructions on how to find her office at China’s propaganda ministry is a grey tabby. Every three months another cat – an extravagantly hairy ginger one with a stare that would give a Bond villain pause – tells me how much Chinese income tax I owe. A rabbit controls the diary of a prominent adviser to China’s president, Xi Jinping: when last we exchanged messages about an interview bid, the reply appeared to come from Officer Judy Hopps, the police-bunny from “Zootopia”, a Disney film.
This menagerie has a simple explanation. In Beijing today every professional and private task leads eventually to WeChat, an all- purpose, all-seeing, Chinese messaging app. All those animal friends are the semi-anonymous, often whimsical avatars of WeChat users. Tencent, the tech behemoth that owns the app, recently announced that WeChat has a billion monthly active users. For foreign users, WeChat feels like Twitter, email, Facebook, text-messaging service and contactless debit card, all rolled into one.
Twenty years ago, no Chinese meeting began without a solemn, two-handed exchange of business cards. Today, any encounter that is likely to be repeated – whether that involves a formal interview with officials, a drink with colleagues, lunch with a foreign diplomat or finding a children’s sports coach – involves an exchange of WeChat contacts, achieved by one smartphone scanning a QR code generated by another.
There are weighty political points to be made about WeChat’s omnipresence. Chinese cyber-police make no secret of patrolling WeChat’s group-chat forums, public accounts (a feature resembling micro-blogs) and even users’ supposedly private timelines. People who post messages or images deemed subversive or indecent have their accounts blocked or deleted. Campaigners who organise meetings on WeChat routinely find the police waiting for them. Such snooping is all the more sinister because WeChat is also a dominant cashless payment system, used to pay for groceries, metro tickets, rent bicycles and taxis. With each interaction, a WeChat user pings another real-time report to China’s great, unblinking, digital Panopticon.
Such concerns have driven some Chinese intellectuals and activists to shun WeChat – though in truth state security agents had umpteen ways of snooping long before messaging apps were invented. But even when sending messages of no interest to a spook, WeChat’s blending of the private and the public is disconcerting. Many users see no need to keep their work, social and family lives separate, though WeChat recently made it easier to hide “Moments” – photos or links to articles or songs displayed on your feed that were more than three days old. The result is that after the mini-ritual of exchanging contact details – “Will you scan me, or shall I scan you?” is a line that swiftly becomes familiar – one user often sees another’s pet photographs, holiday snaps and favourite foods (there are a lot of seafood pictures on WeChat).
If WeChat involved a straightforward abandonment of privacy, that would be unsettling. But to complicate matters, quite a lot of users share lives (or at least a manicured version of their lives) behind larky pseudonyms.
My local accountant uses an online nickname that makes him sound like an R&B singer, and has a cat for his profile picture. As it happens, I use my ginger tabby Charlie as mine. When viewed on my smartphone, serious WeChat exchanges about income taxes are a conversation between two cats.
When pseudonymous contacts are forwarded, things get fiddly. I was grateful to be introduced to the cartoon rabbit who controls access to a Xi Jinping adviser, and our exchanges about an interview have been amiable. But – assuming she is not literally a witch, as her WeChat handle suggests she is – I do not know her real name, and now it seems rude to ask.
This is not to grumble about pseudonyms. After all, I write a column about China in The Economist signed “Chaguan”, or “Teahouse”. At root WeChat is a challenge to my British scruples about privacy, hence my cat portrait and the absence of family photos from my timeline. Based on my previous years living here, China has a way of eroding those scruples over time. Perhaps some future 1843 dispatch will come with a QR code linking to my WeChat account. Charlie, a sociable animal, will not mind.