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Jing Gao

Which Flavor of China’s Wildly Popular WeChat Will You Get?

(Copyright Tea Leaf Media)
(Copyright Tea Leaf Media)

To Western mobile users who have grown too accustomed to Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, WeChat may not ring any bells as a cool social-networking and instant-messaging tool. But according to Global Web Index data, WeChat comes in fifth among the most frequently used smartphone apps, only after Google Maps, Facebook, YouTube and Google+:

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WeChat is not just popular in China. Most of its more than 300 million users are Chinese, but 70 million live outside the country. Indonesia and Malaysia are its top overseas markets. With Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer demigod, as its latest endorser, WeChat is clearly hoping for rapid growth in Latin America and Europe.

But whenever China’s closely-monitored “Innernet” is plugged into the global computer network, the question of censorship rears its ugly head. While it harbors world-domination ambitions for WeChat, Tencent, the Chinese tech giant behind WeChat, has appeared to enact censorship measures to placate the Chinese authorities, who have a knee-jerk aversion to any information not under their control and therefore built the notorious Great Fire Wall, a sophisticated state apparatus that filters out unwanted “noises” and blocks “vermin websites.”

In fact, at home, WeChat has toed the party line. And it is far more intrusive than banning the use of a few sensitive words.

Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident and human rights advocate, reported in January that his WeChat account was clearly tapped, as agents from the National Security Bureau were able to cite many of his conversations with friends as evidence of subversion. In May, Hu’s contacts on WeChat were also deleted, probably because he and his friends often exchanged ideas about freedom and citizen rights in the chat groups.

Luo Changping, an investigative journalist whose revelations led to the downfall of a corrupt Chinese senior official, saw his WeChat public account discontinued, a move believed to stop whistleblowers from airing the Communist Party’s dirty linen.

Soccer megastar Lionel Messi has endorsed WeChat. But inside China, users experience a different reality. (Image via Jing Gao)
Soccer megastar Lionel Messi has endorsed WeChat. But inside China, users experience a different reality. (Image via Jing Gao)

Zhang Lifan, a famous historian critical of Chinese authorities, said his WeChat use is uninterrupted, as he does not post political content on WeChat. But last week, a journalist friend of his shared on WeChat a message that called on people to rally in support of Bo Xilai, a former senior Communist official ousted in the midst of the biggest political scandal in decades. Soon afterwards, the local police appeared at his doorsteps and questioned him.

“I am not surprised,” said Zhang Lifan. “Tencent definitely doesn’t want to get into any political trouble because of its users.”

In a day and age when Google and Microsoft regularly turn over user data to the U.S. government, Tencent’s apparent compliance with Chinese government’s request for private user data is certainly par for the course. However, if WeChat wants to break into foreign markets, it must please overseas users, who might find hard to stomach that fact that it is the Chinese government doing the snooping.

In January, news sites TechInAsia and NextWeb found through multiple tests that WeChat had been blocking users across the globe from sending messages that contain ‘sensitive words,’  such as “Southern Weekend,” a liberal publication constantly subjected to censorship, and “Falun Gong,” a spiritual movement that turned hostile toward Communist rule after being labeled as a cult and banned in China.

It was a public relations crisis for WeChat. Tencent’s explanation? “Technological glitches.”

Then Tencent came up with a pretty smart solution. It’s offering two versions for the app: a “sanitized” version for the mainland, and another, uncensored version for international download.

WenXueCheng on Wechat_Jing Gao
WenXue City is apparently not in WeChat’s good graces. (Image via Jing Gao)

Such a discrimination could work perfectly only if all communication stops at the Chinese borders. Last week, ChinaGate (also known as Wenxuecity) the largest Chinese-language web portal outside China, launched its WeChat public account in the U.S. But it lasted only two days before it was suspended. Now, anyone that tries to follow ChinaGate gets this error message: “This account has violated WeChat Admin Platform policies and has been forbidden from using all official account features.”

When reached for comment, the website replied in an email, “We don’t know why we were banned. Probably it was merely our name.” Wenxuecity.com has been blocked in China for more than a decade.

“We attracted over 5,000 followers in days, many of whom are based in China and wished they no longer had to ‘climb the wall’ to get news from us. We don’t know what to say to these people now that we are banned all of a sudden.”

Fearing that they will be easily on Chinese authorities’ radar just like their mainland cousins, smartphone users in Taiwan have shown resistance to the app. “If the majority of people in Taiwan start to use WeChat, the Chinese government will be able to understand and monitor public opinion in Taiwan through WeChat,” warned a post on Thinking Taiwan, a popular intellectual blog.

That’s why many Taiwanese would rather use LINE, a similar IM app developed by a Japanese company.

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Jing Gao

Jing Gao is a keen observer of Chinese affairs and Internet discussions. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Ministry of Tofu, an independent China news blog.
  • Alec

    Is there an actual difference between the Chinese version and the International version then?

    A few months ago I was chatting with a friend about Taiwan and comparing it with Mainland China. We didn’t go into too many details about politics, but did mention freedom of speech etc in passing. After a while she disappeared from my WeChat for 12 hours. After 12 hours she appeared again but I was blocked from messaging her for another 12 hours.

    • blaine

      short answer, would you trust the chinese govt to “not” spy on the int version? messi sure looks like hes laughin all the way to the bank. he would be crazy to use the app himself

      • Paul Schoe

        short question: would you trust any messenging app not to be overseen or “spied upon” by some government?

        More and more we seem to only have the option to choose whether we are bitten by the cat or the dog. Where dogs and cats of different breeds have extensive collaboration agreements to share each other’s information.

        And with more and more countries coming with legislation that allows for suspects to be detained (temporarily) without access to a lawyer and without the welll-known ‘one phone call’, this does not abide well for free communication anywhere in the world.

        • blaine

          i like the cat that has the constitutional amendment on free speech. and passed laws forbidding spying on its own citizens. it still might happen but still worlds betta than the capitalist commies.

          • Paul Schoe

            Unfortunately we see more and more, that even those cats don’t always feel bound by the laws that they themselves passed. Stretching the limits of what you can do, seems to become the nature of any beast.

            Worlds better then the capitalist commies” is only the case as long as you have not been taken as a prisoner yourself, without the right to call a laywer. Or have not been taken yourself to an undisclosed location where the laws on terrorism have suddenly widely increased to what they can do to you,even with no legal counsel present.
            The fact that those same cats passed and signed the Geneva laws, suddenly doesn’t seem so important anymore.

            It has become a real jungle out there, where the cats and dogs seem to have been replaced by tigers and wolves, who don’t feel bound to the laws of their domesticated breeds.