WeChat Service Gains Ground on Weibo Microblogging Service
September 19, 2013, 2:13 p.m. ET
Even before Beijing's campaign against online rumors accelerated, Sina Corp.'s popular Weibo microblogging service was losing ground to Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s WeChat mobile messaging service.
The WeChat app began as a way for users to chat with each other free on smartphones, but quickly ballooned into a full-scale social network. While Weibo users usually must have a large number of followers to get responses to posts—which are broadcast publicly—on WeChat, users can directly chat with groups of friends, or comment on photographs.
Despite investor hopes, which have pushed Sina's share price up 40% since April, others question how many people will continue to use Weibo if the crackdown on rumors continues. Though analysts say those on Weibo use the service with widely varying interests and motives, one of Weibo's strongest appeals has been the openness with which it enabled its users to discuss sensitive issues.
The Chinese government puts the burden on Sina to choose how it censors content on the platform and Sina has in turn played a delicate balancing act, shutting down discussions that touch a political nerve or could lead to protests, while at the same time leaving enough of interest to keep users coming back.
“Users will lower their activity on [Weibo], but they will choose other alternatives,” said Isaac Mao, principal researcher at research group Sharism Lab and one of China's first bloggers. “People on Internet forums are all discussing switching to other services including WeChat, private social networks, [and] overseas services that aren't blocked, like Instagram.”
WeChat's more intimate and private social-networking functions have led to competition with Weibo for users' time, said Sina's chief executive, Charles Chao, during an earnings call last year.
Last year, Mr. Chao said time spent on Weibo had diminished because of apps like WeChat, which at the end of June had 236 million monthly active users, according to Tencent. Weibo had 54 million daily active users at the end of June, according to Sina. Although last quarter Sina said time spent on its service increased, many users say the new crackdown has increased their use of WeChat.
Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that, for those looking to influence public debate in China, WeChat could still be useful despite its more fragmented environment.
“Its influence is not as big as Weibo, but it can be very effective because you're talking to people who you know and who will pay attention to what you say. It's not as easy to control or monitor because there are so many small networks, and you can constantly change your account,” he said.
That doesn't mean WeChat is immune from government interference, however.
“Some people might think WeChat is safer because it's not public, but if the government really wants to control the discourse, they have lots of means at their disposal,” said Hu Yong, an Internet scholar at Beijing University.
In an essay published Tuesday in the Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily, Lu Wei, one of China's top officials in charge of Internet monitoring and censorship, indicated that the government doesn't intend to let up soon.
“If we do not effectively occupy newly emerged public opinion battlefields, other people will occupy them, creating challenges to our power of initiative and discourse as we carry out public-opinion work,” he wrote.
A version of this article appeared September 19, 2013, on page A6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Mobile-Messaging Provider Gains a Voice Amid Beijing's Censorship Efforts.