News / Asia

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

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, 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

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs