Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 1. Issue 8
WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese app, is celebrating a birthday. We hear about it often in the news, but what is Wechat? Also, as the Covid-19 epidemic has kept me mostly tethered to home for twelve months and counting, I have become actively involved online with several China-related organizations and none more so than the China Institute in New York City.
Chinese Technology — WeChat
WeChat is ten years old. Happy Birthday!
WeChat is now synonymous with China. In fact, WeChat is arguably the most integral component in the life of the Chinese today. Simply stated, you cannot function without it. Operated by Chinese company Tencent, the app is used by more than one billion (1,000,000,000) people each day.
Wikipedia describes WeChat generically as a “Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payments app.” What does this mean? Do you want to order takeout from a restaurant? buy groceries? schedule a didi ride (China’s Uber)? go to a concert or a movie? There is WeChat. Do you like playing mobile games? catching up on the news? staying in touch with friends and family? If so, there is WeChat. Now, in the time of Covid-19, do you want to enter a shopping mall or an office building or stroll in a park? You will need to scan your personal QR Code on WeChat to reconfirm that you have a green health code (and not yellow or red).
“A study by data provider China Internet Watch found that WeChat users spend an average of 77 minutes a day on the app, which effectively provides the equivalent of WhatsApp, Instagram, Google, Facebook and PayPal on one platform.” South China Morning Post.
Not surprisingly, the economic, social, and cultural juggernaut that is WeChat has now become a political football as well. Former U.S. President Trump last year issued a never-implemented executive order to ban WeChat from U.S. app stores because of alleged national security concerns. He doubled down in early January issuing an order banning certain economic transactions in the U.S. involving WeChat’s payment function (as well as those of other Chinese apps). India has recently made its initial ban on WeChat (and 58 other Chinese apps) permanent.
WeChat faces other challenges as well. Concerns about censorship and privacy are being heard both abroad and in China. Domestic rival ByteDate (operator of the increasingly popular Douyin short video app in China and its U.S. version known as TikTok) is attempting to crimp WeChat’s continued dominance. Even the Chinese government has been rumbling recently with concerns over its top tech companies amassing monopolistic power.
WeChat is here to stay and will remain central to Chinese life, but it will continue to be buffeted by strong winds along the way.
Happy Birthday, WeChat.
China Institute (New York City)
At ninety-five years old, the China Institute in Lower Manhattan describes itself as the oldest bicultural, non-profit organization in America to focus exclusively on China.” CI’s Mission is to “advance a deeper understanding of China through programs in education, culture, art, and business. China Institute is the go-to resource on China—from ancient art to today’s business landscape and its rapidly shifting culture.”
I first visited the China Institute in early 2019 to see an exhibition (Art of the Mountain: Through the Chinese Photographer’s Lens).
Over the past twelve months, CI (and many other institutions) has transformed itself virtually, implementing a kaleidoscope of publicly-available, web-based programming, almost all free of charge. This has opened up new worlds of access that we would not have previously been able to experience in person. Given global participation, some people are logging in during the workday, while others have to crawl out of bed before sunrise or stay up way past sundown to present, listen, question, and learn.
CI offers a range programs dealing with culture and history, food and music, art and economics, and more. Language lessons for children and adults are available. I have not only become a member, but I am also enrolled in a Chinese language refresher course.
Two recent historical programs that stand out were a presentation by a panel of experts on the eighteenth-century, private life of the Qianlong Emperor in the Forbidden City and a discussion by Professor Ronald Knapp about China’s covered bridge-making tradition.
On many Thursdays, the Institute presents “Pieces of China; The Story of China, One Object at a time”. These short, fifteen to twenty-minute programs feature one speaker sharing one object of China that is meaningful to him or her. In January, Art Curator Denise Leidy spoke on the famous Chinese, multi-color, sancai glaze (“a splash effect involving white, amber, green, and ultimately blue”) and its cosmopolitan connection with ancient China’s interest in the broader world.
And just as I am writing this newsletter and exploring CI’s website more, I stumbled upon the virtual gallery page. Oh my, such wonderful past exhibits on China’s history and culture to explore.
Dr. Andrew Field, a China Historian at Duke Kunshan University in China, presents a 90-minute primer on ancient Chinese history, politics, culture, and thought from the legendary Xia Dynasty through the Han Dynasty (2,000 BC to approximately 100 BC):
Follow Andrew Singer on Social Media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter