WeChat Woes for Expats in China

calendar iconDec 6, 2021

A recent WeChat payment glitch affecting expats across China left people unable to access their money, with transfers, withdrawals and payments frozen. The platform’s expat social media communities rapidly lit up with complaints, and a major theme was frustration that this was far from the first time users have experienced problems.

WeChat is a Chinese app for instant messaging, social media and mobile payments. From mid-November, many non-Chinese users found their wallets frozen due to a range of problems ultimately traced back to updates made to the payment system. SHINE—a digital news platform from the Shanghai Daily newspaper—reported the issue was related to verification of identity. One such problem, which has arisen in the past, is related to passport numbers changing when the document is renewed. Chinese identification cards, around which the system was designed, have fixed numbers, meaning the change is not easily accommodated.

THAT’S—another Chinese news source, from HK Focus Media—showed screenshots of chats between frustrated WeChat users struggling to understand the cause of the latest payment outage. One message from the platform stated affected users must add two Chinese mainland bank cards ‘to further verify identity information’. Another problem highlighted was the inconsistencies between banks when it comes to writing foreign names. Some use the western name order, while others put surname first, and some add a space between names while others do not, adhering to Chinese style. This, too, can trigger identity verification errors.

Ultimately, the problem was resolved, but with some users reporting outages of at least two days, it has served as a reminder of the fragility of a payment system over which users have no control.

Beyond people being accidentally locked out of their financial accounts, longstanding complaints about WeChat centre around the complete lack of privacy offered and related problems stemming from government censorship. The platform’s analysis and tracking of user activity yields data which is passed on to Chinese authorities with potentially serious consequences. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017 on a Chinese man being arrested after telling a joke in a WeChat group that alluded to a senior government minister. In July this year, the BBC reported dozens of accounts had been deleted over links to groups advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.

Last Updated: Jan 17, 2022