News / Asia

China's Hot Messaging App WeChat May be Good News for Censors

Reuters
The day before China's Communist Party published one of its most important policy statements in a decade, a copy of the reform plans was already circulating on Chinese social media.
 
The unprecedented Nov. 14 leak fuelled China's biggest stock market rally in two months as it spread on microblogs and passed from smartphone to smartphone on WeChat, a three-year-old social messaging app developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd.
 
WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese, meaning “micromessage”, leapt from 121 million global monthly active users at the end of September 2012 to 272 million in just a year. It has quickly become the news source of choice for savvy mobile users in China, where a small army of censors scrub the country's Internet of politically sensitive news and “harmful” speech.
 
“For me WeChat is an essential tool,” said Hu Jia, a Beijing-based dissident.
 
Unlike popular microblogging services such as Sina Corp's Sina Weibo, where messages can reach millions of people in minutes, WeChat allows users to communicate in small, private circles of friends, and send text and voice messages for free - a big part of its success.
 
“Weibo is like a public square, and Weixin is like your sitting room,” said Min Jiang, an associate professor studying China's Internet at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
 
WeChat limits the size of ordinary chatrooms to 40 people, and public pages, which users can subscribe to, can only post one message a day.
 
That does not mean communications cannot be monitored or censored, but it does give users a way to avoid running afoul of the government's new rules, that hold users accountable for “online rumors” read by 5,000 people or re-posted 500 times.
 
It may also be good news for China's rulers, because messages do not spread as rapidly as on Weibo's open platform.
 
“WeChat is less of a potential threat to the authorities than Weibo is,” said one of the founders of the anti-censorship site GreatFire.org, who goes by the pseudonym Martin Johnson.
 
“People mostly use WeChat to exchange messages with people they already know. I still think the censors pay more attention to cleaning up Weibo. Weibo messages have the potential to reach millions of people very fast.”
 
Singled out
 
Weibo has been particularly singled-out in the ongoing crackdown on “rumor-mongering” by China's stability-obsessed government, which views public protest as a threat to its authority.
 
But WeChat has not escaped the government's attention, and its explosive growth means it is attracting more scrutiny than ever from the authorities.
 
“Online communications and national security has already become a conspicuous problem standing before us,” said President Xi Jinping during a speech in November, in which he mentioned WeChat by name.
 
Social media operators in China are required to help censor content on behalf of the government, which trains their employees for the purpose.
 
Hu, the dissident, says the police have quoted him back messages he has sent through WeChat.
 
“Even though you know it's not safe... you have no choice, you need to use it, because all your friends are using it too much,” he said. “I can still share many things related to human rights and politics.”
 
In January, users were blocked from sending messages containing the characters for “nanfang zhoumo”, Chinese for “Southern Weekly”, a newspaper that was in open revolt against press control in Guangdong province.
 
Tencent's self-censorship, which has been shown to block sensitive messages sent outside China as well, may also affect its efforts to push WeChat outside China. The platform already has more than 100 million users outside China, and the company has signed soccer star Lionel Messi to promote it overseas.
 
“A big issue for Tencent would be convincing Americans and Europeans that they're not operating under the same self-censorship principles outside China as in China,” said Doug Young, the Shanghai-based author of The Party Line. “Image-wise that could hurt them in their global expansion.”
 
A spokesman for Tencent declined to comment on its censorship of WeChat because of the sensitivity of the issue.
 
'A conspicuous problem'
 
WeChat's relative newness means researchers are still studying how the app's censorship and monitoring work.
 
“If controls are present on the server side it makes it much more difficult to verify,” said Masashi Crete-Nishihata, research manager of Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto. “And so far we suspect that's implemented on the server side.”
 
Citizen Lab has already been able to show that Line, another smartphone messaging app created by Line Corp, a Japanese subsidiary of South Korea's Naver Corp, blocks a regularly updated list of banned phrases in China. Work they did with the University of New Mexico found that the use of censored words in the old Chinese version of Skype could also trigger remote surveillance.
 
Microsoft Corp switched its Chinese partner for Skype in November and the program is now believed to be more secure.
 
Weibo, the microblog, uses a computer system to scan each post before publication so sensitive ones can be flagged for censors employed by Sina, who decide whether to delete them.
 
“Just knowing how the censoring apparatus works, my personal guess would be they're going to use the same mechanisms,” said Gary King, a Harvard professor who has researched how social media platforms are censored in China, but not WeChat.
 
Tencent's 15-year-old instant messaging service, QQ, is subject to active monitoring and censorship, according to Citizen Lab.
 
Speaking at a conference in London in November, Google Inc Chairman Eric Schmidt recalled a meeting with President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, just weeks after China passed its new regulations on “online rumors”.
 
“The most interesting thing about talking to the government, from the president all the way to the governors, is that they are obsessed with the Internet,” said Schmidt, without elaborating on their conversations.
 
Authorities have signaled that they plan to increase their control of social media, including WeChat, and further “manage” China's Internet.
 
“If anything happens and it becomes explosive, everybody knows that Weixin will be the next target,” said Jiang, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

You May Like

Will Cuba Follow the Southeast Asia Model?

Decision to restore ties between US and Cuba has some debating whether it will lead to enhancement or regression of democracy for Communist island nation More

Kenyan Designer Finds Her Niche in Fashion Industry

‘Made in China’ fabrics underlie her success More

Report: CIA, Israel's Mossad Killed Senior Hezbollah Commander

The Washington Post story says Imad Mughniyah was killed instantly by a bomb "triggered remotely" from Tel Aviv by Mossad agents More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Lateri
X
Deborah Block
January 31, 2015 12:12 AM
Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Later

Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid