WeChat Puts a Billion Eyes on China (and the rest of Asia, and Europe and Australia)

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10:45 PM HKT, Tue September 26, 2017 3 mins read

Here’s a story bouncing around the China-watching internet today: WeChat, the social messaging (and mobile payment, and kinda everything else) app by internet giant Tencent, has temporarily changed its splash image. From its launch in 2011 until a day ago, the app showed an image of earth taken by NASA in 1972 with a silhouette of a humanoid figure looking on from… I guess the moon or something? Never was quite clear on that. They’ve now swapped out the image of the globe for one including Eurasia and Australia in the frame.

The original image is one of the most famous pictures of earth — “possibly the most reproduced photograph in history,” says The Atlantic. It was snapped by the crew of the Apollo 17, the last mission of NASA’s Apollo program. It’s a literally iconic image that has even been proposed to represent the planet on a Flag of Earth.

The new image selected by WeChat for its splash page was taken earlier this year by the Fengyun-4A, the first in a new series of Chinese weather satellites, which launched into orbit last December.

Why the swap?

To many Western observers, the answer seems obvious: Tencent, as an internet company with necessarily close ties to the Chinese state, wants to amplify the soft power prestige of putting a Made-in-China picture of the earth in front of hundreds of millions of eyeballs that scan WeChat on a daily basis. The general consensus seems to be that this symbolic shift puts China at the center of a new global order represented by this photograph. That take doesn’t seem backed up by geography to me (the actual center of the photograph lies somewhere between Malaysia and Indonesia), but I see their point.

WeChat presumably selected the Blue Marble as their launch page in the first place because of its instant recognizability, and also because it puts the cartoon figure’s head right around Johannesburg — near the headquarters of Tencent’s key early investor, South African media conglomerate Naspers.

This new image — which will only be in circulation for three days, before WeChat reverts to the trusty Blue Marble — does indeed feel like a celebration of China’s mounting space clout. In an excellent rundown of China’s space ambitions published in July by Nature magazine, Jane Qiu writes:

The rising fortunes of Chinese space science have come in part from efforts by the CAS, which worked through the 2000s to convince China’s government to boost the scientific impact of its missions. The academy’s efforts were eventually rewarded with a pot of money: the five-year Strategic Priority Program on Space Science kicked off in 2011 and provided $510 million for the development of four science satellites.

There’s also a tremendous amount of money and research going towards other headline-grabbing space projects, like a $300 million Dark Matter Particle Explorer and a quantum communications system which this past July earned the distinction of hosting the “First Object Teleported from Earth to Orbit”.

Like in so many other areas (AI, robotics), China is spending heavily to catch up — and eventually take the lead — in the space race, and it’s inevitably going to be dripping out images like this to show where it’s at and ramp up on-the-ground excitement. Just a few days ago, Chinese news outlet Xinhua announced more info on the country’s planned 2020 unmanned Mars mission. A few days before that, Chinese space official Li Shangfu was promoted as part of a leadership shuffle of the People’s Liberation Army, signaling another, harder edge to China’s space plans. The timing of this WeChat PR bump is probably not coincidental.

Personally speaking, I think the more we’re thinking about how fragile and tiny this place we inhabit is in the larger scheme, the better. China officially released this image in February to a quiet reception — there are a lot more eyes on it now.

It’s also worth considering WeChat’s own motivation with this maneuver. Subtracting out the perceived cultural arrogance of a Chinese company making China the symbolic sort-of-center of the world, maybe WeChat wants to tell a more specific story about how it is expanding its own global reach. The Financial Times quotes Tencent CEO Pony Ma as saying, “It is very hard for WeChat to expand overseas, unless we can offer a wholly different customer experience, but social apps are basically all alike.” According to a 2015 report by WeChat analyst Walk the Chat:

WeChat outside China is currently mostly confined to regions having a significant Chinese-speaking population, such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Hey — those places are all in the new earth picture.

Perhaps the most important question here is — how is that little space person in the WeChat splash page breathing? Worry about that guy, but at least we know he’s managed to keep himself alive from 1972 to now.

Cover image: China Releases First Images from Fengyun-4A Weather Satellite (Astrowatch.net)

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