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

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid