WeChat: Reshaping Social Media in China
January 29, 2014 |

The latest hot topic among those interested in China, tech, or some combination of the two, is the decline of Sina Weibo and rise of WeChat (Weixin in China) users this past year. Sina Weibo, China’s leading social media microblog platform, has over 500 million registered users and its real time updates make it similar, though not identical to Twitter. However, recently released reports showing the declining number of Weibo users by the China Internet Network Information Center have most major news outlets heralding the death of Weibo, and pointing to Wechat as the next big thing. While WeChat is definitely one of the key apps to watch in 2014, many of these pieces attribute the shift to increased censorship without mentioning that it exists on Wechat as well. But as more attention and users migrate to WeChat, so too will the government.

2013 saw the new government turn up the dial Internet censorship. As China’s Internet base and penetration continue to soar, and the web replace older forms of media as the primary source of information and communication, a number of high-ranking Party members, including Xi Jiping, have stated that ideological control needs to be implemented online. The blog, Feichang Dao, details the progression, citing articles written by official government mouthpieces, speeches, and harsher laws and punishments. Given Sina Weibo’s dominance in the social media arena, much of last year’s effort was spent creating “an Internet army” of government censors focused on eliminating “online rumors,” an ambiguous term that could apply to any piece of information that is not explicitly, officially sanctioned.

As a result of the campaign, according to a presentation given by the People’s Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Unit director, Zhu Huaxin, there was a significant drop in political commentary and conversation on social media platforms, with messages posted by government-sanctioned accounts dominating the boards. Though Zhu considered the result a victory and emphasized the need to maintain the lead in driving public opinion, he also pointed out that, while government mouthpieces and authorities have successfully dominated Weibo, WeChat has replaced Weibo as the most important platform for public opinion making.

Though WeChat is often portrayed as the next refuge for free speech in China, there have been several cases of censorship and surveillance reported. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Wang Zhang, the founder of an online forum that discusses Chinese social media, said that sensitive posts on WeChat may not even be delivered to contacts. In addition to preventing certain messages from being posted, there have also been several alleged instances that indicate a pretty high level of surveillance. WeChat user Hua Chunhui reported a “report” system for “illegal content” on WeChat that deleted information from his group chat timeline.  Last December, human rights activist Hu Jia reported that government officials quoted WeChat voicemails he had sent to friends. Weibo user Cao Shanshi shared a screenshot of a WeChat conversation he had with a journalist earlier this month who claimed that the police questioned him after he posted to a WeChat group about a protest.

While these cases are still only anecdotal, it isn’t so difficult to imagine that monitoring is indeed taking place. Techinasia reported in August that a representative of the Internet police in China said that spreading rumors not only on Weibo, but also on WeChat is considered a crime. As Eveline Chao pointed out, every internet company in China is held legally liable for all content shared through their platforms within China. That means that in addition to the data stored on Chinese servers, the government is likely to have access to data stored overseas by companies who have a big stake in China. While technically the rules are different for content exchanged outside of China, in order to be successful in China, any large company generally has ties with the government (the founder and CEO of Tencent, Ma Huateng, is a delegate to China’s national legislature). Furthermore, they’re more interested in staying in business and not being shut down, which would not be possible if they were viewed as a platform that enabled dissidents. Sure enough, last January, reports indicated certain Chinese characters in WeChat’s international messages were also being monitored. Messages containing certain keywords related to the Southern Weekly newspaper protestswere blocked. Tencent denied any censoring, claiming messages with the words “Southern Weekly” or “南方周末” were unable to be sent due to a “glitch.” Though the controversy seems to have subsided, the use or potential use of Wechat as a surveillance tool is still there.

Although many thought leaders worry that with conversation moving from Weibo to WeChat, becoming more influential in swaying opinion, freedom on WeChat will shrink, both Tencent’s international ambitions and the government might balance it out. As seen with the latest NSA, Facebook, and Snapchat scandals, the international community is extremely sensitive to reports of invasions of privacy, and any major brouhahas are likely to damage WeChat’s growing popularity. From the government’s view, Zhu Huaxin warned against the further repression of speech on public platforms like Weibo, arguing that “when public opinion is formed on private communication platforms like WeChat, social discontent cannot be relieved.”

The takeaway? Keep your eye on WeChat, but remember that the government is as well.

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