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China’s Sudden WeChat Crackdown

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China’s Sudden WeChat Crackdown

A sudden censorship crackdown on popular social media app WeChat has Chinese netizens in a bind.

China’s Sudden WeChat Crackdown
Credit: Smartphone with flag of China image via Shutterstock

The social networking app WeChat, also known as Weixin in China, fell victim to a very abrupt and unexpected crackdown on Thursday, with dozens of politically active accounts deleted. Politically active users driven from the paranoid censorship on China’s most popular microblogging platform, Weibo, are finding that the relative oasis of WeChat is not as safe from government suppression as previously thought.

Some of the squashed accounts had hundreds of thousands of followers, like that of Xu Danei’s Newsletter (徐达内小报), which had an estimated 200,000 subscribers. China Digital Times published a known list of blocks, largely liberal-minded organizations and news sources like Truth Channel (真话频道) and Phoenix We Media (凤凰微媒体). But China’s growing modern Red faction was not immune: ultra-leftist site Utopia (乌有之乡) also got a taste of the censors’ collective axe.

This cull of politically active WeChat accounts comes on the heels of last year’s Weibo “rumor” crackdown, which set a precedent for untrue statements (even those of a satirical nature) landing social network users in the clink. Weibo—an amalgamation of many of the social networks China has blocked over the years, including Twitter and Facebook—has seen users slipping away to WeChat over the past year.

Any hope that WeChat and its 271 million users would dodge China’s propaganda and censorship authorities has been dashed, or, as David Wertime said in his Foreign Policy piece, “Welcome to the big leagues, WeChat.” Indeed, WeChat has never been free from censorship—few things in China are—with posts constantly being deleted for their sensitive nature, but, as Wertime points out, “a wholesale deletion of public accounts is unheard of. Those enticed by WeChat’s latent promise as an outlet for independent media are now wondering whether they had simply enjoyed a false spring.”

Offbeat China quoted one “netizen” as saying, “A new crackdown is here … All that’s under the sky belongs to the Party. [The government] cannot find a plane, but it’s able to find out about all ‘sensitive’ conversations.”

South China Morning Post cited an unnamed internet operator claiming that the recent crackdowns on online speech in China “has been building since Lu Wei, a former Xinhua executive and Beijing vice-mayor, assumed the post of director of the State Internet Information Office last year.”

Even worse, while the world is used to hearing horror stories about Chinese censorship, it is less used to experiencing the all-powerful harmonization of the Sino-censors in other countries. The WeChat app is also used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, but research from Tech in Asia earlier this year showed that WeChat was censoring globally, as the search term “Southern Weekly“—suffering their own fight against censorship at the time—was blocked in Singapore and Thailand.

At the moment, WeChat is growing, slowly approaching the 300 million mark, but if the censorship continues, some are wondering what overall effect this will have on Tencent’s most-prized app. China’s famous Weibo crackdown had a very real effect on the nation’s social networking as a whole, with some public intellectuals and “Big Vs” deleting their accounts altogether—with not a few of them ending up in detainment or prison, one famously a 16-year old. Party mouthpiece People’s Daily found that postings from 100 opinion leaders on Weibo fell by 10 percent after the government’s online culling in August 2013. People’s Daily stated that voices had become “more positive.”

After the central government’s crackdown on online speech this past year, buoyed by the somehow pro-censorship newspapers of China’s lapdog state media, users flocked to what they believed would be a more open WeChat. Over 37 percent of users who quit Weibo last year started using WeChat, according to The China Internet Information Center, and users must be wondering what ship they can jump to now once the propaganda authorities sink this one.