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China is testing an electronic identification system on WeChat

Whatever’s in your wallet, be it cash or ID card, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp should be able to read it.

WeChat payment on mobile phone, arranged for photography.

China's WeChat has a different interpretation of "mobile wallets."

Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Wallets could become a thing of the past in China. 

Starting next year, the Chinese will no longer have to worry about leaving their identity cards at home, as long as they're registered users on WeChat.

On Monday, the Guangzhou government in China released the country's first batch of "WeChat identity cards." They'll allow citizens to verify their identities through facial recognition technology, Xinhua News Agency reported Tuesday. The programme is expected to launch across the country next month.

The electronic identity card will function the same as a traditional identity card issued by the state. Verified users will be able to do anything that requires an identity card, including checking in at hotels and applying for government services, just by scanning their faces with their phones. Their identities are authenticated through an artificial intelligence system.

WeChat is a social messaging platform similar to WhatsApp and boasts 980 million registered users -- that's the majority of China's population of nearly 1.4 billion people. It's owned by the country's tech titan Tencent, which became the first Asian tech company to cross $500 billion in valuation last month. The move is part of its efforts to get into the Chinese government's good books after it was investigated in August for alleged illegal content. WeChat also has a mobile wallet service called WeChat Pay, which caters to the Chinese people's preference for cashless payments.

Applicants can opt to have their identities verified with facial recognition technology on the WeChat app so their virtual identity cards can be authorised.

The project is expected to improve accuracy in identifying people. AI can correctly authenticate identities with an error rate of just one percent while humans may be wrong 15 percent of the time, according to Officer Yan from the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau in Nansha.

It also protects privacy and guards against identity theft. This is because data is encrypted and users no longer have to keep copies of their identity cards or have their personal information accessed by someone else, Yan added.

CNET has reached out to Tencent for comment.

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