Can Chinese social media generate a WeChat rival?

Tencent has long dominated the attention of China's social media users with its all-encompassing app. A smaller player is pinning its hopes on Alibaba as it starts its fundraising.

China is overflowing with big-ticket websites that compete for the eyeballs — and wallets — of the country's 800 million internet users.

There are platforms specialising in each sector: Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, focuses on information delivery; video streaming apps like Kuaishou and Douyin bring entertainment; Taobao and JD.com are the places to shop.

Transcending them all, however, is Tencent’s WeChat, with its one billion monthly active users. The app can easily direct its enormous internet traffic to any of the above-mentioned platforms, and sucks users in to a vast social network ecosystem, with everything from messaging to payments.

Perhaps the best chance of an effective challenge to WeChat comes from the company that provides China's other ubiquitous payment solution, Alipay — Alibaba.

That's certainly the view of the latest plucky challenger to WeChat, a brand-new app called Zidan Duanxin, meaning “bullet texting” in Chinese, which disclosed its Rmb150 million ($22 million) first round of funding on Monday. The messaging app boasts multiple innovations such as automatic voice-to-text function.

Luo Yonghao, founder of Chinese smartphone maker Smartisan and an investor in Zidan Duanxin, said via his Weibo account that building a substitute for WeChat remained fanciful, before pointing to its secret weapon. “But Zidan Duanxin will soon integrate Alipay into its function,” the entrepreneur said in a post just days before the fundraising announcement.

However, Luo’s name-dropping “puzzled” Alibaba, a spokesperson told FinanceAsia in a phone interview, without confirming immediate strategic cooperation with the start-up in social networking space.

“As an open platform, Alipay welcomes all eligible business to incorporate Alipay’s solutions into their products and services,” the spokesperson said.

HEAVY FALL, LIGHT RISE

It's not hard to see why Alibaba wouldn't want to join the social networking fray at this time.

Alibaba’s last social network venture came in late 2016, when Alipay launched a new social networking function called Quanzi – friend circle in Mandarin – which was soon taken down amid moral panic over how it was being used.

Concern focused on two female-centric features called “Campus Diary” and “White-collar Diary”. In  both, some young ladies – who purported to be college students and office ladies – posted sexually explicit pictures in the hope of scoring higher credit ratings or cash gifts from male users.

Although Quanzi was removed from Alipay soon after, the parent group faced serious criticism for gender and income discrimination, objectifying women, and distribution of pornography.

That was Alibaba’s first social network attempt – a phenomenal debut, in a sense.

Alibaba has learnt its lesson. Since then, the e-commerce giant only carefully tested the water in rather peripheral branches of social networking offering fewer functions than platforms like WeChat.

For instance, on the current Alipay platform, there are two circle-like sections, Ant Forest and Ant Farm,  via which users can interact and play games with their Alipay contacts.

What's more, the company remains politically correct, funneling earnings generated from these two game-like functions to ecological protection and poverty relief efforts.

Going forward, Jack Ma and his team are likely to tread cautiously in the social network space, but it's hard to imagine Alibaba not making any move in the area. Speaking to FinanceAsia, the spokesperson said it took an open attitude, but declined to comment on future strategy in detail.

“Nevertheless, whatever new product idea we may have in the future, will only be driven by user demand,” the spokesperson said.

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