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+:
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.
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.
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.