With more than a billion monthly users around the world, art-world institutions are flocking to China’s all-encompassing “super-app” WeChat. But the country’s predilection for surveillance and censorship is raising security concerns.
If you have any relation to China, chances are you’re on WeChat. With more than one billion active monthly users, the world’s largest standalone mobile app combines instant messaging, social media, payments, news sources, and search engines into an indispensable digital tool for millions in China. It’s so crucial to communication that when former president Trump considered banning Apple and Google’s app stores from distributing WeChat in 2020, some Chinese immigrants feared they wouldn’t know how to check in with their families. “Everything is about WeChat,” Frances He, an Angeleno who uses the app to speak with her brother in China, told USA Today. “It’s the only way we communicate.”
For artists, galleries, and museums, WeChat is becoming a crucial way to build an audience. Even before pandemic isolation forced the technology-averse art market to embrace virtual viewing rooms and NFTs, Blum & Poe, Perrotin, and David Zwirner were experimenting with WeChat’s manifold features to connect with potential buyers. Dealers say the app has been useful in reaching deep-pocketed Gen Z and millennial collectors—a hybrid generation dubbed “MZers” in South Korea—who were willing to test the waters of the art market during the pandemic and gained curiosity for contemporary art after exploring fashion drops and luxury collectibles.
Most galleries use WeChat to send news announcements to their followers, but some are getting more creative. According to an ARTnewsreport, the Swiss mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth is live-streaming exhibition walkthroughs and artist conversations. Videos of gallery tours featuring works by William Kentridge and Annie Leibovitz, for example, garnered 14,000 views apiece. David Zwirner found that WeChat features like live chatting can help facilitate e-commerce. A virtual presentation of Oscar Murillo paintings resonated with Chinese viewers, selling for up to $350,000 each. WeChat also lets galleries learn key demographic information about their followers such as gender, age, and region.
During the pandemic, when galleries were closed and WeChat faced a stateside ban, the American Alliance of Museums sprung to the app’s defense. The year before, WeChat had promoted virtual tours of nearly a dozen institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, which saw a sharp increase in attendance from Chinese tourists after reopening in 2019. Building a presence on networks like WeChat and TikTok is a boon to cultural institutions, but most lack the resources to experiment on the platforms. JiaJia Fei, a digital media strategist in the arts, cited the “unpredictability of whether or not content will be accessible in the future” as a potential pitfall for cash-strapped museums if there’s a ban.
Casting doubt over WeChat’s feasibility is China’s propensity toward censorship and propaganda. As the app becomes more popular around the world, the global reach of China’s surveillance methods is expanding. WeChat recently banned users who shared images of a pro-democracy protest in Beijing. Chinese tech companies are storing vast amounts of data from foreign users—including millions of WeChat conversations—in a database connected to public security agencies. “The intention of keeping people safe by building these systems goes out the window the moment you don’t secure them at all,” Victor Gevers, co-founder of the nonprofit GDI Foundation, an open-source data security collective, told NPR.
As the social media landscape moves to a place where content is continuously buried under inscrutable algorithms and users will soon be asked to pay to stay verified, exploring the possibilities of WeChat could be a strategic move to build a new audience. “With all technology, it’s always up to each individual to choose their level of information sharing,” Elena Soboleva, David Zwirner’s global head of online sales, told ARTnews. “The best thing to do is be informed and aware of all apps.”