WeChat, the popular mobile application from Tencent Holdings, is set to become more indispensable in the daily lives of many Chinese consumers under a project that turns it into an official electronic personal identification system.

The government of Guangzhou, capital of the southern coastal province of Guangdong, started on Monday a pilot programme that creates a virtual ID card, which serves the same purpose as the traditional state-issued ID cards, through the WeChat accounts of registered users in the city's Nansha district, according to a report by state news agency Xinhua.

It said that trial will soon cover the entire province and further expand across the country from January next year.

The programme's success would mark one of the most significant milestones for WeChat after it was initially rolled out by Tencent as a mobile messaging service in 2011, and then evolved into the country's largest social network, as well as a popular online platform for payments and money transfers.

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Shenzhen-based Tencent has estimated that WeChat, marketed as Weixin on the mainland, recorded 980 million monthly active users in the quarter ended September 30.

The WeChat ID programme was co-developed by the research institute of the Ministry of Public Security and Tencent's WeChat team, and supported by various banks and several other government departments.

The project is expected to help deter online identity theft, as facial recognition technology is used to verify applicants before their virtual ID cards get authorised.

Those verified will be able to use their WeChat ID to register in hotels and apply for government services without the need of bringing their physical ID cards.

Guangzhou's WeChat programme, however, is not China's first experiment to develop electronic ID cards using a smartphone app.

In June 2016, the branch of the Public Security Bureau in the city of Wuhan, capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei, teamed up with Alipay to launch an electronic ID card service.

That project with Alipay, China's largest payments platform operator and a unit of Ant Financial Services Group, also aimed to promote the use of electronic ID card in scenarios such as hotel check-in and going through security inspection at railway stations and airports.

Wuhan's electronic ID card programme had more than 400,000 city residents using the service tied with their Alipay accounts.

Ant Financial is an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding, which owns the South China Morning Post.

Apart from ID cards, both WeChat and Alipay have separately initiated digitalised services for the social security cards and driver's licences of their users on the mainland.

- This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post