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

Elusive Deal With Iran Could Yield Foreign Policy Legacy for Obama

A new Iranian leader -- and a strategic shift by the United States -- opens narrow window for nuclear agreement with Tehran More

Column: Saudi-Iran Meeting Could Boost Fight Against Islamic State

The fact that Iranians and Saudis are talking again does not guarantee a breakthrough, but it could make it easier to build a broad coalition against IS More

Thai Ruler Gives Top Cabinet Posts to Junta Inner Circle

Thailand's army chief has kept an iron grip on power as he extends the government, hand-picking an interim parliament that subsequently nominated him prime minister More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid