Chinese in Earthquake Zone Flock to WeChat as Phone Calls Fail
2013-04-23 03:48:11.606 GMT
By Bloomberg News
April 23 (Bloomberg) — Chinese in the earthquake-hit
province of Sichuan resorted to instant-messaging apps including
WeChat to communicate with family and friends, as overloaded
voice networks prevented calls from connecting.
Yu Yuli posted a note telling friends she was safe on
Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat, China’s most popular instant-
messaging app, after futile attempts to make calls. The quake,
measured at magnitude 6.6 by the U.S. Geological Survey, killed
at least 193 people and injured more than 12,000, according to
the official Xinhua News Agency.
“I was really surprised to see that I was still getting
messages on WeChat,” said Yu, 49, a manager at a logistics
company in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. “I was
able to get in touch with friends in a very short time, so I
Apps from Internet companies including Tencent and Sina
Corp. have become an important tool for Chinese to locate
relatives and help rescue efforts in natural disasters.
Government agencies have also recognized their merit. After the
April 20 quake, the Chengdu government posted a message on
Sina’s Weibo, a Twitter-like service, urging people to cut down
on phone calls and use WeChat, Weibo or text messages to save
resources for rescue operations.
One of the first Weibo comments from the China
International Search and Rescue Team, asking for first-hand
accounts of damage, was reposted nearly 480,000 times as of
Yu, who lived through the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that
killed more than 70,000 people, said she completely lost touch
with family and friends then. This time, with WeChat, she was
able to post a photo of her displaced furniture using a
Facebook-like service called Moments, and messaged a friend to
reschedule an appointment.
WeChat had more than 300 million users as of January,
according to a post on Tencent’s official Weibo account.
Messages sent through mobile apps and text messages take up
less bandwidth than voice traffic, Li Shaoqian, a professor at
the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in
Chengdu, said in a phone interview. Because it doesn’t require
real-time transmission like a phone call, WeChat data traffic
can be put in a waiting line for connection.
“When you make a phone call, you’re competing for
bandwidth just like you compete for space on the road when you
are driving a car,” Li said. “WeChat takes up a lot less
In addition, fewer of the base stations that enable
wireless communications were damaged than in the 2008 disaster,
At China Mobile Ltd., China’s largest wireless carrier, 221
base stations remained out of service as of 6 p.m. on April 21,
Rainie Lei, a Hong Kong-based company spokeswoman, said in an e-
mail. In the 2008 earthquake, 4,457 base stations were knocked
out, according to a company report.
The spike in popularity of instant-messaging applications
is both a challenge and opportunity for traditional carriers as
WeChat and Weibo’s mobile apps ride on the bandwidth provided by
traditional carriers including China Mobile, said Hu Yong, an
associate professor of journalism at Peking University in
“Text messaging and other traditional services might
decline,” Hu said. “But carriers are not necessarily losers,
as they can also benefit from the spike in traffic.”
Jerry Huang, a director of investor relations at Shenzhen-
based Tencent, and Liu Qi, a spokesman at Sina in Beijing,
didn’t immediately respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking
–Lulu Yilun Chen and Edmond Lococo. Editors: Terje Langeland,
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Michael Tighe at +852-2977-2109 or