Red packets are an important part of Chinese culture, particularly during Lunar New Year. With the popularity of homegrown messaging apps in China, however, companies such as Tencent have integrated the idea of red packets into their services as a form of money exchange.

As the function developed, a virtual red packet culture has also formed in the mainland around the feature, with users creating games and forming new social habits.

WeChat red packets
WeChat red packets. Photo: HKFP Remix.

The feature was highlighted during a recent election at the University of Hong Kong, where one candidate accused another of using the red packet function to engage in voter bribery. The candidate, Printa Zhu Ke, allegedly gave out red packets worth RMB80 in WeChat groups. After an investigation, however, the university’s governing council considered the amount involved was “immaterial.

See also: HKU students, staff, alumni call for probe into Council vote bribes

What are virtual red packets?

The feature of virtual red packets was first rolled out in January 27, 2014 by mainland technology giant Tencent in its mobile app WeChat.

Virtual red packets can be sent as a directed red packet in a one-to-one chat, or in a group, where the sender can specify the number of people who can receive it and amount of money that is put inside. There are packets where one can also specify how much each person can receive, but oftentimes it is the lottery version which is favoured.

Once the red packet is sent, the receiver simply taps on the image of the red packet or – if the sender has specified – types a phrase indicated on the red packet to receive the money. For group red packets, it is a contest of speed, and red packets go to the ones who spot and click on it the fastest.

Zhu ke red packet screenshots
Details of those who received Zhu Ke’s red packets. He said that none received more than RMB2. Photo: Zhu Ke via Facebook.

For lottery red packets, neither the sender nor the receiver knows how much money has been received until the packet is clicked on. Results of the lottery – how many people have opened it and how much each has received – can then be viewed as a list within the details of the red packet.

To take the money gained from red packets out of the system, one would need to connect a bank account to the service.

Settling payments, playing games and everything else

Paying each other for meals or welcoming someone into a group chat are common reasons for giving out virtual red packets.

A game culture has also developed around the feature, such as “Red Packet Chain Game,” where, for example, after an initial red packet, a subsequent red packet must be given by the one who received the least amount of money from the previous red packet, and so on.

The popularity of such games have led to groups being opened for the specific purpose of sending and receiving lottery red packets, as well as scams which promise a much larger amount of money if you pay a certain deposit.

wechat red packets groups
WeChat Red Packets groups. Photo: screenshot.

“I think the idea is the fun of being the first to grab the red packets. I think that is the psychology behind the game there – that whoever gets it first, or the first group of people that are allowed to receive the red packet, can get a piece of the pie,” Wendy Tang, an independent tech reporter in Greater China, told HKFP.

Roger Shek, an electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Hong Kong, expressed similar sentiments, telling HKFP that if there’s a red packet, “yeah, why not click on it?… if that person is giving you money, if you don’t want it, then don’t take it. It’ll expire in a day. If you want it then just click on it.”

Red packet culture is most prominent commercially during the Lunar New Year period, when companies join in the fray to give red packets, and users are encouraged to snatch some of the hundreds and thousands of red packets on offer within a limited time. In previous years, WeChat has also partnered with CCTV’s New Year Gala, a significant event of Lunar New Year in China, to encourage users to join in the red packet snatching fray.

red packets during lunar new year
Lunar New Year red packets. Photo:

Shek said that he had used the red packet function many times, during “Lunar New Year, and after meals when one person has paid… everyone will give him a red packet.”

“For example, when you enter a group, you will give a red packet… to show that you want to be friendly,” he said.


Yet what about incentives which are provided by such red packets?

Tang said that it was the “norm” in China to give out red packets when asking for certain favours. “When a user has a request in a group – let’s say there is an article that they published on the WeChat platform and they would like the other users to help spread the content – because they want people to do it, they would send a red packet out as an incentive for the users.”

“I would say though, it’s a norm here in China that I’ve seen. Whether it’s ethical… if we have to come to that question, then I think that it is a whole different culture, a different understanding,” she said.

“For instance, for reporters in mainland China, when they go to press conferences, the conference organisers will usually give out red packets to the reporters. So again… there’s an incentive.”

The idea is to reimburse reporters for transportation fees and for writing about the press conference, she added.

University of Hong Kong.
University of Hong Kong.

However, when asked, mainland students seemed to believe that the red packet would make little difference to their motivations, at least in voting.

“If he or she wants me to elect him or support him… I won’t collect the money. Because I don’t want to change my decision or my thoughts according to this red packet. I don’t think it is quite suitable,” Yue, a graduate student studying engineering at the University of Hong Kong told HKFP.

zhu ke hku
Zhu Ke. Photo: Zhu Ke, via Facebook.

“I think it is meaningless, I can’t see the point of collecting money from [a] group chat,” she said, “… the [amount of] money is quite small,” she added, speaking in general of group red packets.

Shek also said of the election and the suspected vote bribing:”these things which can be recorded is not a tactic of bribery.” He said that for group red packets, “I don’t really click on it, it’s only a few cents” and added that it was “very rare that someone will give a big red packet in a group, unless relationships are very good.” He also said that he does not feel that he would owe anyone anything if he clicked on a red packet.

hku student alumni staff council
Joint statement by HKU students, alumni and staff. Photo: HKU Students’ Union, via Facebook.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people with relations to the university have signed a petition calling upon the governing council to disclose the reasons for its decision to not follow up on the matter, and to launch a formal enquiry into the bribery allegation. They also asked the Council to evaluate the election procedure.

Chairman of the Council, Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, has said that while the council has dismissed the complaint, “it was also recommended at the Council meeting that the University’s election regulations be reviewed and revised” for the future.

Chantal Yuen is a Hong Kong journalist interested in issues dealing with religion and immigration. She majored in German and minored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University.