Ubiquitous in China and among Chinese communities around the world, Wechat is used by almost every Chinese and deployed in many daily tasks from e-commerce, payment, news, social media to covid-19 vaccination scheduling. Its rapidly growing reach is becoming increasingly annoying to me, as the line between one's private life and business is blurring fast. Is there a way to keep them separate?
Wechat for Business is not the solution as it still relies on a business entity to set up and doesn't try to do what's best for the individual. Wechat Official Account is not the solution either as that's mostly a one-way media outlet, not an IM tool.
So I tried to set up a new WeChat ID and find out what's the minimal personal information I can get away with. It would be nice if I can create a new pseudonym on Wechat that cannot be traced back to me in real life. I would then be able to use this for networking with strangers and keep the use of my current Wechat ID to only friends and families.
I logged out of Wechat and tried to create a new ID. It went straight into a "Sign up with mobile" page where I have to provide a mobile number to proceed. I typed in a Palo Alto-based phone number (650-xxx-xxxx) from a US burner app developed by Ad Hoc Labs in LA and see if it can charm the system. In many cases, such a burner number is sufficient and works quite well as a viable authentication method that is recognized by many platforms.
Not for Wechat though. Wechat promptly identified this as a "virtual phone number" and would not advance to the next screen. Bummer!
While this route quickly ran into a cul-de-sac, online research suggested that there is another route available for Wechat signup - via Facebook integration. Maybe if I can sign up a new Facebook ID in pseudonym, I can create the same Wechat ID without using my real-life phone number?
The problem is, this page is nowhere to be found. I searched high and low in Wechat, and this page would not pop up anywhere. Very strange.
This left me with no choice but installing Wechat app on iPhone. I was reluctant to do so - it's possible that I might lose all the chat histories and all the contents accumulated in the app. Wechat is now a top 3 app in terms of disk usage on my iPhone.
Well, should that happen, so be it. I went ahead to delete Wechat app and reinstalled it. Magically, the signup page with Facebook option appeared, at last. It seems that Wechat team tried very, very hard to not allow this page to be easily discovered by Chinese users.
Next, creating a new Facebook ID was relatively easy. Facebook didn't ask for mobile number in ID creation stage and only took an email address. Awesome. This looked promising. Wechat recognized the Facebook integration. We're getting there.
However, there was one more screen! It still asked for a mobile number, even though the ID was already taken from the newly created Facebook account. The burner number didn't work of course.
I'm back to square one. In both routes that Wechat creates for signup, an actual mobile phone number (not a virtual, pre-paid, burner number) has to be provided. There is no way to get around with it. With a real phone number, the user can still be traced back to his/her real-life identity through cooperation of local telco provider. That's just the way it is, in the world of Wechat.
I wish more friends would use Signal app for instant messaging but at least in Chinese communities, its adoption is still fairly low. Wechat still occupies the heart and mind of 1.2 billion Chinese users.
In the end I just used another Chinese mobile number to register a new Wechat pseudonym. It's still very useful to protect privacy when I interact with strangers from new/existing networks/communities. The new ID is an effective shield that keeps my real-life identity invisible from strangers that do not need to know more about me than an ID. In most cases, that actually seems sufficient.
李志 has been one of my favorite folk song Chinese singers, along with 左小祖咒. He puts on phenomenal live performances that always brings down the house. In this particular live rendition of "The Summer Time of Shanyin Rd （山阴路的夏天）", his backup singer stole the show with a spectacular roar. Love it.
Until next time,
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