This week there are reports in Vietnam’s local papers, that Vietnamese mobile users are dropping WeChat. The app, which is one of the big players in the Vietnamese mobile messaging battle, contains maps that Vietnamese say violate Vietnam’s sovereignty. The “cow tongue” on the maps, slang for the dotted line China puts around disputed islands it claims as its own, shows the Paracel and Spratly Islands under Chinese dominion. To many Vietnamese this is offensive.
In the WeChat mobile app, users can send their location to chat buddies, and WeChat shows embedded maps from either Apple or Google. The English-language maps inside WeChat are either sourced from Apple Maps (on WeChat for iOS) or Google Maps (for the Android version), and the English maps don’t display the so-called cow tongue. In the Vietnamese version, users will not see the controversial island claim. But when users change the app’s/phone’s language settings to Chinese, the “cow tongue” map appears with its Chinese sovereignty claims. This might explain why Vietnamese users didn’t discover the controversial map layout until this week even though WeChat has been growing in Vietnam for some time.
Nevertheless, the source of this issue is actually Google and Apple, who are being forced by Chinese law to comply to Chinese geographical standards. Technically, neither WeChat nor its makers, Tencent, are doing anything wrong, and it’s a bit of a stretch to be boycotting the maps which only show up if you go so far as to change your phone’s system language. But that’s the way the controversy has turned. Here’s how it looks:
The report has fired up Vietnamese forums and even spawned a Facebook group (in the last 48 hours) dedicated to boycotting WeChat. In one image circulating on the web, a Vietnamese celebrity is targeted for her support of WeChat.
A similar maps-based controversy emerged a few a few weeks ago in which the Chinese-made game Chinh Do (released by local web giant VNG) also featured a version of the “cow tongue” map. In the minds of hasty online users, that’s two strikes against Chinese software in Vietnam.
Whether or not the map will actually impact WeChat user acquisition remains to be seen. But this is already becoming a great excuse for Vietnamese to stick with more popular apps like Viber, Whatsapp, or Facebook Messenger, or even the up-and-coming Vietnamese Zalo. The overarching concern here for Chinese software companies entering Vietnam will be whether they can survive once Vietnamese users discover they are Chinese. Baidu, China’s top search engine, has already found this out the hard way. Any maps inside China are required by law to contain the “cow’s tongue,” so Chinese companies are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to overseas expansion.
Edit: Removed Prime Minister blog, as this was identified as inaccurate. The article did not appear on the prime minister’s website but on a blog that uses his name in the title.