Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, The World

30 July 2020

The idea of techno-orientalism can help the public and policymakers understand the nuances of WeChat and the debate surrounding it in Australia, Fan Yang writes.

WeChat is a social media service that was developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd. in Shenzhen, China in October 2010. Ever since, it has been the primary digital communication platform for Mandarin-speaking communities globally.

People use WeChat for diverse purposes, ranging from daily messaging, content publication and consumption, financial transactions, e-commerce, travel, and public health. In 2018, the platform was reported to have more than a billion monthly active users.

WeChat has been the subject of public debate in Australia since 2016, though this has been in parallel to emerging opportunities that the platform offers to business and commerce in the country. Concerns have been raised by some commentators about whether WeChat has been channelling China’s ideological influence to Australia, and disturbing Australia’s multi-ethnic public sphere.

What the increasingly hostile debate about WeChat reveals is deepening socio-political divides between China and the West, and Australia specifically. In attempting to draw attention to the platform and its ability to influence Australia’s national security, it has fallen into a trap of ‘techno-orientalism’.

‘Techno-orientalism’ is the phenomenon of imagining Asian technology in different and inaccurate terms, and it imagines overwhelmingly dystopian versions of technologies developed in Asia than is really the case.

Concerns about WeChat, and China’s digital footprint more broadly, have not just been restricted to talk. In fact, the Australian government has made the platform subject to official security inquiries and even potential sanction.

With some even floating the possibility of banning WeChat, Chinese migrants have expressed their worry about potential disconnection with families and friends based in China, and even the loss of work. Currently, the platform sustains job advertising, along with news-focused WeChat Official Accounts employing staff, and often facilitates businesses exporting Australian products to China.

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Clearly, banning WeChat would be a significant step, but does the platform actually pose a risk to Australia, and why is it causing so much alarm?

From the very beginning, WeChat was developed from imitating the Western corporate social media by merging the functions of other social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, into one product.

Clone’ has been one word associated with the platform, and used to describe it to a non-Chinese audience which is less familiar with the app. It is possible this has played into suspicion of WeChat as an app similar to Western social media, but not quite the same, but is likely not the most significant factor.

What is likely more concerning to governments like Australia is WeChat’s growing prominence outside of China. While predominantly addressing the domestic Chinese market, the functionality of WeChat is clearly expanding, probably with commercial goals, like building access to multi-sided markets, to countries in the West to be used widely by Chinese migrants.

On top of this, WeChat’s design has contributed to suspicions. Mediating between online and offline services and users, WeChat has endeavoured to channel user data onto their platform and attempted to make the use of other platforms unnecessary. This is likely part of a deliberate strategy which involves making WeChat’s traffic more monetisable, but could also be used for governmental surveillance.

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But, this ‘platform capitalism’ and its associated surveillance risks are something WeChat shares with virtually all corporate social media platforms, whether they are Chinese or not. In fact, WeChat has only built on an existing American model of digital infrastructure, founded and then dominated by tech companies in Silicon Valley.

It seems that many critics are concerned that because WeChat is a platform developed outside Silicon Valley, and is governed by a different cultural and ideological leaning, that it is dangerous.

This assertion, while not totally without merit, inevitably generates a technological othering of Chinese internet presence, and is a classic case of techno-orientalism.

Criticism of WeChat has focused heavily on censorship and technological surveillance, the two primary frameworks applied to understanding the platform. But this may be the focus not because it is the whole picture, but because it is the part of WeChat that is the most different to Western corporate social media.

According to some, WeChat sits in extreme contrast to Western cyber-libertarianism, where platforms are considered a living, quasi-autonomous trans-territorial plane of offline civil society, and so has attracted the most attention from commentators.

However, attributing differences between WeChat and the Western corporate digital infrastructure such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google to national ideologies is not the best way to understand it.

This perspective obscures the fact that social media, both inside and outside of China, involves digital megastructures where nation-states, transnational companies, and their interests are entangled.

On top of this, it is manifestly inaccurate. Even on non-Chinese social media, like Twitter, intertwined movements of power with various political and commercial interests, and greater data collection than the public might like to think, are concealed behind the user experience. The difference is simply that they are camouflaged by a liberal discourse that focuses on the product as a ‘platform’ of open debate, free of user surveillance.

Otherising technologies developed in the non-Western world is nothing new. This sentiment once prevailed in the United States in the mid-1990s toward Japanese capital investment, and often rears its head when there are rises in Asian imports into Western economies.

As it often is, techno-orientalism toward WeChat is a manifestation of other contemporary existential, racial, and technological anxieties that fear an ‘Asianised’ future, particularly when that future is enabled by greater flow of information and capital between the West and the East.

With China now recognised as a strong and industrialising force disturbing the ‘world order’ with its influence in the global economy, WeChat has become a target of techno-orientalist sentiment, in Australia and elsewhere. Both the public and policymakers should stay wary of this, especially if the government hopes to make truly good decisions about the future of WeChat in Australia.

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