WeChat 'Red Envelopes' Scandalize a Student Election in Sydney

WeChat 'Red Envelopes' Scandalize a Student Election in Sydney
Photo Credit: REUTERS/達志影像/Phil Noble

What you need to know

Worlds collide: A university election in Australia was marred by allegations of bribery involving a Chinese student and a popular WeChat feature.

A Chinese student was temporarily barred from standing for Sydney University’s student representative body earlier this month after offering small amounts of money to potential voters via WeChat.

WeChat’s “Red Envelope” feature, introduced in 2014, allows people to exchange money electronically. The name comes from the traditional Chinese custom of giving red envelopes containing cash at weddings, holidays and other special occasions.

Zhixian Wang, standing for the Sydney University Union (USU), reportedly gave money to voters via a group chat “Sydney University Business Society.”

Wang was initially found to have breached the student union’s regulations regarding bribery and was excluded from running in the election. However, she successfully appealed the ruling and on May 17 was elected to the USU board.

Wang told the university’s student-run newspaper, Honi Soit, “These [red envelopes] contain a small amount of money (equivalent to few Australian dollars), and when intended for multiple recipients (as in my case), with the amount of each portion randomly determined. With elements of fun, luck and tradition, it has been a social norm for users to send ‘red packets’ in group chats.”

Wang said giving away red packet money should not be considered bribery, and pointed to cultural differences as the reason for the misunderstanding.

Popular trend

According to a Quartz report, more than 8 billion “red envelopes” were sent via the popular messaging app during Chinese New Year in 2016.

Eveline Chao, a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, U.S., describes how people react to the “red envelope” function in WeChat.

“Whenever someone sends a red envelope to the group, everyone would go crazy. That was when I started to understand the competitive, gambling-like thrill,” she wrote.

Student response

Of Sydney University’s 54,000 students, more than 20 percent are international students. And based on online comments about Wang’s case, it appears many Chinese students at the university support Wang’s “cultural difference” argument.

Several people commenting online say the WeChat “red envelope” feature is a form of entertainment because it is fun to watch people “go crazy” tapping at their screens just to win a small amount of money.

One postgraduate student from China noted that Westerners have different standards of bribery than Chinese. He added that international students should follow the university’s rules but the student union should also take into account different cultural practices.

While some students believe cultural differences are not a valid excuse for bribery, others see the union’s initial move to stop Wang from standing in the election as an example of “discrimination against Asians.”

The furor in Sydney is not the first time Chinese students have found themselves at the center of controversy because of vote-buying allegations linked to WeChat’s "red envelopes."

In October 2016, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption was called on to investigate a Chinese student who was standing for re-election to the University of Hong Kong student council. An opponent alleged the student had offered small amounts of money to voters through a pro-Beijing youth group on WeChat.

The student was eventually re-elected after university officials decided the total amount offered — RMB 80 (US$10) — was immaterial, Hong Kong Free Press reported at the time.

Editor: Edward White