WeChat reaches audiences conventional media in China cannot

Editor’s note: This article is the second of two in a series on WeChat. The first, “How WeChat became the primary news source in China,” can be found here.

The body of Li Wenxing, a recent graduate of Northeastern University of Shenyang, China, was found on July 14, 2017 in a ditch in Tianjin, a 30-minute train ride from Beijing. He was 23 years old and an autopsy showed that his stomach had been empty for days.

The news was written up in local papers but didn’t get much attention. The ditch where Wenxing was found was in a district of the city where many “direct sales” gangs operate. Eager to make money, they hold young people hostage, force them to sell various products (anything ranging from dish soap to vitamin supplements), and extract money from their friends and relatives when they can’t make a sale.

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For the local news desk, Wenxing was just another victim of gang violence, an out-of-town boy trying to strike gold who fell on terrible luck. But in the eyes of savvy influencers on China’s WeChat platform, who publish text and video content that gets pushed to their followers from public accounts, this was sensational, national news. And they were right.

Often referred to as Key Opinion Leaders or KOLs, the influencers recognized Wenxing’s tragedy as more than local gang violence. KOLs have changed the dynamics of Chinese media, as I write in the article accompanying this piece. Heavy on emotion and light on accuracy, the most-read and shared stories on the WeChat platform are often selective with details. To them, the story encapsulated many hot-button issues that would get strong reactions from their readers.

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Lin Mo was among the first to alert her WeChat readers to Wenxing’s death. A former finance news reporter turned writer and administrator of the public Hua’erjie account, users mostly follow Mo for her business stories.

As the only son of an impoverished rural family, Wenxing graduated in 2017 along with 8 million college graduates in China, 300,000 more than the year before and the highest in decades. Between this army of qualified grads and the country’s economic downturn, getting a job proved to be difficult, so he turned to the mobile internet for a solution.

That summer saw a boom in recruitment-app startups: Zhilian, 51job, Doumi, Dajie, and many other human-resource applications vowing to “connect employers with qualified candidates” raised millions of dollars in venture capital and boasted tens of millions of daily, active users. Mo had long been watching the recruitment apps’ turf war and had concerns over the lack of employer background checks on employers that advertise with them.

Wenxing had downloaded all of the apps on his phone and sent out dozens of job applications daily. Finally, an app called “BOSS direct hiring,” which ranked fourth in terms of market share at the time, messaged him that a tech company was offering him an interview for a position as a Java developer. On May 20, Wenxing traveled to Tianjin for the interview with his laptop and some light clothing. It was a setup and he was captured by a gang.

He stopped replying to texts sent by friends and family. In June, Wenxing got back in touch to ask for money from a few friends and his mother at the behest of the gang holding him hostage. But in his last call to his family on the evening of July 8, he said: “Don’t give money to anyone, no matter who calls you.”

Wenxing’s uncle carried his nephew’s ashes back to Shandong in a backpack a week after the body was found, and days later his sister posted a short letter online in remembrance of him. This letter drew the attention of KOLs on WeChat. Unlike Tianjin local news, they immediately realized how big the story was.

For her part, Mo immediately downloaded the BOSS direct hiring app and posted a fake ad herself. Under the intentionally comical title of “general manager of soy sauce,” she received over 50 responses in under an hour. She then looked up the app’s CEO, interviewed friends in the tech circle, and wrote an exposé on why BOSS was able to have “good-looking numbers” in the eyes of venture capitalists and what its bad practice means for this sector of startups.

Within 24 hours, numerous stories from varying angles on the Wenxing case flooded users’ WeChat timelines. Public accounts that target young professionals wrote about how the high-paying jobs often seen on recruitment apps were indeed too good to be true. Accounts that target parents with college-aged children wrote about how tough the labor market is, and how dangerous the job-hunting process could be. “This could happen to anyone’s son or daughter,” one wrote. “Any company can post job ads online and lure young graduates to an interview.”

Those in the tech startup community wrote about the boom of HR apps and their bad practices. Other job hunters duped by BOSS shared their experiences. As more content got shared, emotions were roused.

By evening, national papers and TV news deployed reporters to Tianjin to do follow-ups. BOSS issued a public statement of apology. The entire platform was suspended on August 9, six days after the news broke. An award the company had received was revoked. The city of Tianjin deployed 6,000 police, inspected over 6,557 residences, and arrested 127 gang members.

It was all everyone talked about that day. “The KOLs know their audiences extremely well and they know it when a story pushes all the right buttons,” said Zhua Saisai, a KOL in pop-culture circles and the principle writer for the public account Project K. “The story has all the right elements to strike the fear in the heart of their targeted audiences.”

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Mia Shuang Li is formerly a Beijing-based Chinese reporter and a researcher for the Beijing Bureau of the New York Times from 2011 to 2016. She is currently pursuing a masters degree at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.