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What’s the Happs with Messaging Apps in China?

Ever hear of QQ? What about WeChat? If you answered “no” to either—and plan on visiting or working in China—then you should probably acquaint yourself with both. Immediately. These messaging apps are huge in China, and they are only continuing to grow at a rapid pace. WeChat recently surpassed 549 million monthly active users (MAUs).

Both are operated by Shenzhen-based Internet service giant Tencent Holdings Limited.

QQ began its life as an instant messaging platform similar to the now-defunct MSN Messenger, which (surprisingly) was not shut down in China until 2014, a full year after it was discontinued globally.

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Over the years QQ has expanded into online social games, music, microblogging, and (let’s not forget) shopping, boasting upwards of 800 million total active accounts (as of January 2015). However, despite this huge presence, it is WeChat that has come to the forefront as the “go to” chat and social gaming app for smartphone users in China. In fact, many China-based social media brats will probably scoff at QQ as a messaging app, relegating it to the uncool and out-of-fashion trash heap.

Beyond chatting and games, WeChat has become well known most recently as a popular app for mobile payments (WeChat Pay), hailing a taxi and even sending Bitcoin, among other examples shown in this infographic.

Tencent’s most recent update of MAUs reveals quite an increase for WeChat, up from the 500 million posted in the same period last year. However, as Tech in Asia points out, there are no details showing where users are based. And as such, it remains difficult to figure out if WeChat is still just used primarily by those in China (although growing) or if it is in fact gaining more of a global following.

If WeChat does start breaking out of the middle kingdom to a greater degree, the app could give competing messaging services a real run for their money. The most popular chat app with a truly global following is WhatsApp, with over 800 million MAUs, with Facebook Messenger following with over 600 million. Viber and Line are popular globally, but do not have anywhere near the number of monthly users as the top dogs.

Although impressive, it is perhaps important to keep in mind that some services only report stats on active users, while others report only registered users. Tencent reportedly has 100 million registered users outside of China.

In contrast to the growing popularity of WeChat, it has come under heavy criticism in China, the United States, and India. The largest complaint being its overall lack of privacy, as WeChat can access any user’s messages or pinpoint their location using the GPS feature. On a “government level” in many countries, criticism of the app comes in the form of the ever predictable mantra, “It poses a threat to national security.”

QQ has also been criticized (in the past) for allowing government watchdogs to monitor online conversations for sensitive keyword phrases and even track users by their account number.

So, I don’t know. It’s probably best to be careful when talking about things like gorilla porn, prayer rugs, or justice… I mean, for real, is anyone still under the illusion that any of this technology allows real privacy from government spying and hackers alike?