WeChat by Tencent

China represents one of Apple’s biggest markets, one that it is paying dearly for. Source: Shutterstock

WeChat’s racist outburst is the least of Tencent’s problems outside China

Tencent’s WeChat app has hit bad press recently for mistranslating a neutral Chinese phrase for ‘black foreigner’ into the ‘n-word’.

The company’s translation uses an AI engine to tweak its capabilities, and it is thought that the materials employed by the AI to hone its language were erroneous.

Similar problems were experienced by Microsoft in 2016 when its AI-powered bot ‘Tay’ had to be turned off due to indiscrete, unpleasant spoutings.

The WeChat translation was of the phrase “hei laowai”, which literally means “dark foreigner” or “black outsider.” A WeChat spokesperson apologized for the error via a Chinese news site, Sixth Tone.

WeChat is ubiquitous in China, with around 762 million monthly active users. Its capabilities include booking doctor’s appointments, paying utilities or traffic fines, booking transport as well as a news feed and search capabilities. These make it the go-to app for many of the population.

However, despite the company’s best efforts, its attempts to spread the app outside China, announced in 2012, have been almost entirely unsuccessful, despite the (presumably expensive) endorsement by key sporting figures like Lionel Messi and Neymar in Brazil, for example:

WeChat’s use in the rest of the world is largely confined to the Philippines, but elsewhere it’s the Zuckerberg triptych of WhatsApp, Facebook and FaceBook Messenger that tends to dominate.

Across Asia specifically, the most broadly popular social apps are Facebook, Line, and WeChat, with some regional variation.

If Tencent is still intending that its WeChat app is to be more widely used outside of mainland China, it will need to address other concerns than its translation feature’s occasional racist outburst.

The company’s privacy policies set it at the bottom of the world rankings according to Amnesty International, with a host of examples of the company clearly reading and censoring users’ posts, plus passing on users’ details to Chinese police & authorities should there be anti-government or other anarchic sentiment expressed via the app.

There is also a host of features available to Chinese users of the app which simply isn’t available to users outside the country, making use of the app as a conduit to the enormous Chinese user base pointless.

While it’s indisputable that messaging apps per se are the way for users and businesses to reach Asian people or markets, the fact that each app tends to serve slightly different market mixes means that no one single app can be used to reach everyone.

What those who conduct business in APAC (or are thinking about doing so) need to realize is that WeChat is representative of how different the Chinese internet ecosystem is from the rest of the world’s.

Because messaging apps are an intrinsic part of our lives, our cultural sensitivities are entrenched in apps. Whether or not those sensitivities are well-received elsewhere remains the sticking point for both app developers and anyone wishing to use messaging apps for commercial purposes.