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Research and Images compiled by Selene Zhang and Katrien Jacobs

The WeChat Red Envelope is an app developed by the company Tencent that was  launched on January 17, 2014. In its diverse functions, it includes services such as delivering virtual money, checking one’s transaction histories, and withdrawing cash [1]. The purpose behind the app comes from the Chinese tradition of the red envelope, which is filled with money and given as a gift to family and friends [2]. But in Wechat you can send two different types of red envelopes: Regular red envelopes and Lucky Draw red envelopes, respectively with or without a specific amount of money to give to each recipient.

On January 26, 2016, WeChat released a trial version of a new type of red envelope entitled “Moments Photo Campaign"[3]: It allowed users to upload photos with an automatic pixellated digital effect. After clicking on the pixellated photo, users could see a small piece of the photograph with an ultimatum: sending the photo owner a “red envelope” filled with a random amount of money or rejecting the photo, which then remained pixellated [4].

Web users were making their best efforts to post their photos and attract others to pay. There were also sexually explicit photos that spread around very quickly. People posted their naked photos with words such as “R-18”, “beautiful body,” “my naked photo”, etc. GuGu, a Chinese young lady stated her opinion when she first encountered the Moments Photo Campaign: “It looks so fun and of course I was so curious that I participated in it! I put a sexual photograph of myself with the words "I heard that you need to pay to reveal the sexual me." I received 27 likes and 20 responses in the end.”[5] ZuoWan, another female user of the new function, explained her reasons for posting sexual explicit photos: “Why wouldn;t you send what audiences want to see? Who cares about your normal daily selfie?”[6]. ShuiZhuyu, another Chinese woman, criticized the new feature as being “just another encouragement of the sex industry”[7].
































Web users expressed their enthusiasm within this short trial period, which took place from 17.00 to 18.20 and was cancelled one hour and a half earlier than planned. In less than one hour and half, WeChat officially announced that more than 18,000,000 people had participated. Then the state media explained that there was a problem with sexually explicit materials and reported that “even if we would count it as a 1/10.000 chance, there still would have been 1800 sexual explicit photos spread and about 10,000 people would have been affected.”[8]

The Photo Campaign attracted attention widely in the Chinese media from and there were official statements from government officials[9]. IT experts and hackers developed different ways or methods to reveal the pixellated photos without payment. CCTV News reported on it the next day with the following headline: “Posting naked photos and asking for money in WeChat Photo Moments, one man was caught in prison.” The Weibo account of the Shanxi Province police station emphasized the necessity of regulating the PRC soon after the Photo Campaign was released:

Under the Criminal Code, the offences “production, duplication, publication, sale or dissemination of pornographic material for profit”, “dissemination of pornographic material”, and “organization of displays of pornographic audio-visual material” will cause three to ten years set term of imprisonment.[10]

But the normal censorship mechanism of WeChat had not been applied during the Photo Moments Campaign. People believe that the function was canceled because “too many sexual explicit photo spread around and the law had been defunct”[11]. On the 26th at midnight, all photos that had been sent during Photo Campaign were deleted completely. WeChat announced that the red envelope was only “an interesting activity for the Spring Festival, instead of it becoming a permanent function”.

[1]  Chen, Liyan, "Red Envelope War: How Alibaba and Tencent Fight Over Chinese New Year”, February 19, 2015,, Retrieved July 22, 2015.

[2] Mack, L, March 21, 2015, "Chinese New Year: Red Envelope"., Retrieved February 23, 2016.


[3] Moments, a feature of WeChat that is a newsfeed to friends’ circles.

[4] Eva Xiao, “The Red Envelope Wars Have Begun: WeChat Tests Photo Campaign A Week Before Chinese New Year.” TechNode, January 27, 2016., Retrieved February 23, 2016.

[5] “你如何评价微信在 2016 年 1 月 26 日推出的朋友圈「红包照片」功能?”, ZHIHU, January 29 2016., Retrieved February 23, 2016.

[6] “你如何评价微信在 2016 年 1 月 26 日推出的朋友圈「红包照片」功能?”, ZHIHU, January 29 2016., Retrieved February 23, 2016.

[7] “你如何评价微信在 2016 年 1 月 26 日推出的朋友圈「红包照片」功能?”, ZHIHU, January 29 2016., Retrieved February 23, 2016.


[8] 李俊慧, “1800万人参与的“红包照片”,如何避免成为下一个传黄利器?”, TMT POST, January 29, 2016,, Retrieved February 23, 2016.


[9] If searching 微信红包照片(WeChat Photo Campaign) in Google, there are over 2,480,000 results (Feb.23, 2016).


[10] 田欣鑫, “微信’模糊’照片大火:公安提醒不要涉黄”, 澎湃新闻, January 27 2016,, Retrieved February 23, 2016.


[11]  “你如何评价微信在 2016 年 1 月 26 日推出的朋友圈「红包照片」功能?”, ZHIHU, January 29 2016., Retrieved February 23, 2016.

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