WeChat has become an indispensable part of life in China. As China’s answer to WhatsApp, Facebook, Uber and Apple Pay, it has combined all the functions these international brands have to offer into one phone application. People in China use it for everything from sharing updates with their friends, sending messages and group chats to organizing parties and making digital payments.
Despite its considerable utility, however, this app makes me uneasy.
Several years ago, when WeChat was starting to become popular, I posted a photo of a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong, held in memory of Tiananmen Square, to my WeChat Moments (a feature in WeChat similar to Facebook Timelines). Half an hour later, my boss called me, scolding me for my “dangerous and improper” behavior and ordering me to “delete it immediately.” I had to comply but couldn’t help wondering how it had leaked so quickly. Since Moments posts were supposed to be viewable only by one’s WeChat friends, is was obvious that either a friend had reported me or the authorities were monitoring my WeChat activities. Either scenario made me terribly uncomfortable.
I soon realized that mine was not an isolated case. Over the following years, I heard many stories in the news about WeChat users who were interrogated or arrested for things they posted on Moments. Some of the posts were politically sensitive, and others bad-mouthed local police officers.
I have also witnessed censorship firsthand involving two other major WeChat features: group chats and public accounts. Although the Chinese don’t usually talk about politics in public, they are quite outspoken in private occasions, and group chats provide a private, informal environment. As people began exchanging political opinions in group chats, the chat groups and participants’ accounts were removed without warning, with members not knowing which exact lines they might have crossed. This year, three people were blocked for posting “an article about power struggles in the Communist Party to their group chat,” The South China Morning Post reported. There are also 20 million public accounts on WeChat, which are for those interested in reaching the general public. Articles there are heavily censored, and many accounts with large followings have been temporarily silenced or even permanently suspended.
Over time, many of my WeChat friends have found their accounts blocked for, according to government censors, “disseminating malicious rumors.”These are mostly apolitical people who simply shared critical articles on scandals that sparked public outrage, like defective vaccines and #MeToo accusations against high-ranking figures; when their accounts were blocked, they weren’t given any information about which articles they shared were considered fake or malicious. Since most users now have thousands of contacts and even their banking accounts linked to WeChat, having their accounts blocked causes them financial and social distress. As the climate of fear prevails, growing self-censorship follows.
Years ago, people resentful of this kind of ironhanded censorship would go to WeChat’s foreign competitors, like Facebook, Twitter, Line, Facebook Messenger, Telegram or WhatsApp. As time passed, each of these companies was blocked in China, one after another. By late 2017, WeChat was the only messaging app allowed to operate behind the Great Firewall. According to Tencent, the Chinese tech conglomerate behind the app, by early 2018 it had one billion monthly active users.
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In response to increasing pressures from the government, WeChat and similar companies are investing heavily in manpower and filtering technologies to strengthen their ability to censor their users. Global Times, a state-owned media outlet, reported that “China’s huge pool of web moderators” are “required to have an eagle eye for dangerous content.” During periods of heavy traffic, that may involve looking at “trillions of posts, voice messages, photos and videos every day.”
In September 2017, the Cyberspace Administration, a government agency that regulates the internet in China, issued new rules tightening control over the chat groups, calling on chat group managers to report suspected violations and crimes to the authorities, and demanding cooperation and technical assistance from businesses that offer such services. It also introduced a new mechanism to rein in online discussions: Managers rate chat group users according to a credit system; if, after repeated violations, their credit drops too far, they could have their access to the groups suspended.
In December 2017, when China announced that it was collaborating with Tencent to implement a national identification card system on WeChat, I realized that WeChat had gone beyond being a commercial messaging platform to being part of the state’s e-governance initiatives.
Thanks to WeChat, everything about our lives has become easily accessible to the state, and Tencent analyzes and monetizes our shopping habits, our travel plans and even our dating preferences without us knowing, let alone consenting.
I have tried to persuade people I know to switch to other messaging services that have end-to-end encryption — to no avail. Since most of their contacts are on WeChat and they are so reliant on its services, they see no reason to leave. Whenever I bring up privacy concerns, the usual response is, “If you have nothing to hide, why do you mind the government accessing your data?” Sadly, this echoes a statement by Robin Li, the chief executive of the Chinese search engine giant Baidu: If, he said, the Chinese people “are able to trade privacy for convenience, for safety, for efficiency, in a lot of cases they are willing to do that.”
Over the past several years, I have done my best to stay away from WeChat; I still have the app on my phone, but I’ve learned to survive without it. While typical Chinese internet users spend a third of their mobile online time on the app and return to it 10 times or more daily, I check it only once or twice a week. I try to pay with cash or credit cards in China and use WhatsApp and Telegram when abroad. Giving up my privacy and freedom of speech in exchange for convenience is not a trade I’m willing to make.
Audrey Jiajia Li is a freelance journalist.
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