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WeChat was the darling of the Chinese start-up scene, the sexy competitor to Weibo domestically, and Twitter and WhatsApp, on the global stage. The design of the website meant that freedom of speech was for a while preserved – mainly because messages between users remained relatively private and insulated from the wider internet. But Beijing has orchestrated a sudden clampdown on the service : closing several high-profile accounts, some with hundreds of thousands of followers.
When users access the banned accounts, a Chinese message appears, translated as:
Due to reports from users that have been confirmed, all functions for this public account have been shut down for violating regulations. We suggest you cancel your subscription.
Users operating the site in English received a slightly different message – notably without any mention of “We suggest you cancel the subscription.”
WeChat started as a messaging service – however in 2012 the company behind the app – Tencent, introduced public accounts so that subscribers could follow celebrities, brands and well-known journalists and media outlets.
All of these subscription-based accounts on WeChat come with a “report” button at the bottom right of the content page. Some accounts had hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
Tencent has not stated its reasons for shutting down the accounts. The Chinese authorities have previously warned users that “spreading rumours” online is a crime – “spreading rumours” being a euphemism for speculation about corruption amongst senior Chinese officials.
Users of WeChat had already reported that the app blocked certain sensitive words.
Analysts have said they are not surprised by the censorship – although admit that WeChat has survived longer than most websites in China without restrictions on freedom of speech.
“I don’t find the suspensions surprising, though it’s still disheartening,” Jason Ng, author of Blocked on Weibo and social media expert.
“It would’ve been foolish of authorities not to regulate WeChat, like they do all other social media when they clearly have the capability and the will to do so.” Ng added “The only thing holding them back perhaps was a lack of resources.”
Ng pointed to the original “insular nature” of WeChat messaging, meanig it was less likely for “rumours” to go viral. However since 2012, the introduction of “new public accounts had clearly changed the authorities assumptions [about WeChat]”.
Yunchao Wen, a freedom of speech activist and Chinese social media expert told Index
“The Chinese government have never leaves any permanent space for political expression – sometimes they don’t find them straight away, sometimes they’re too busy dealing with other issues, but they are always censored.”
Wen also stressed that more than two hundred people were jailed by the Chinese authorities over political or human rights issues in 2013, as well as suggesting that the news had been “buried” while journalists were distracted.
“They closed down the Wechat public accounts on the last day of 12th National People’s Congress, trying to make sure foreign journalists didn’t notice,” said Wen.
Speculating on whether the censorship campaign will have hit WeChat commercially, Ng was sceptical.
“I don’t think it’s hit them too hard; it was only 50 or so accounts.” Ng also quipped “One Lionel Messi commercial and this event will probably be forgotten,” referring to the high profile celebrites who are regularly featured on the site.
WeChat was launched in early 2011, reportedly attracting 100 million registered users in its first fifteen months. The company revealed that it had 270 million active monthly users, up 124% from the previous year.
Sina Weibo, a key competitor for WeChat, is gearing up for an IPO on the Nasdaq – targeted to raise $500m. However investors have been warned that China’s censorship policies may negatively affect business – with several paragraphs in their sales materials relating to censorship.
Sina Weibo faced similar censorship to WeChat in 2012, telling investors “we had to disable the comment feature on our platform for three days to clean up feeds related to certain rumors.” Users were speculating about a possible coup d’etat in Beijing.
Despite state censorship and political repression, social media is changing the protest landscape in China.
With the exception of economic reform that started in the late 1970’s, the country has remained restricted by government policy and ideology. A one party state has led to a national media that lacks plurality and regularly fails to report on incidents that they fear may damage the government’s image. Combined with internet censoring and heavy-handed tactics being employed against state opposition, freedom of expression has always been limited, but there is hope for change.
Social media within China has expanded rapidly, Sina Weibo — 60 million active daily users, 600 million registered users (Sep 2013) — and WeChat — 300 million registered users, of which 100 million are international (Aug 2013) — are two of the most popular. This allows a democratic spread of information that has never previously been available to citizen journalists or local people.
A media project by the University of Hong Kong showed the importance of Weibo in relation to the 2012 protest in Shifang against potential environmental damage by a proposed copper plant. Traditional media largely declined to report on the protests themselves, but made reference to ‘an incident’ and the rising stock price of a tear gas company, whose product was used on protestors. In contrast, there were around 5.25 million posts on Weibo containing the term ‘Shifang’ between 1-4 July with 400,000 containing images and 10,000 containing video. A similar incident occurred in Chengdu, Sichuan province, when factory workers went on strike to demand higher wages. State media ignored the protests while social media spread the news that tear gas was being used, along with images of the protest. Eventually officials stepped down and workers received a raise. Physical protests can be complemented by online activity, but it is not without difficulties.
In addition to the notorious firewall, the government can censor specific words to try and control the narrative of any given incident, by pushing their own agenda and restricting citizens’ freedom of expression. However, many online users use images, and memes in particular can portray a serious topic in a light-hearted manner, further increasing the spread of information.
An OECD report in 2013 evaluated government trust in various countries, China ranked very well with 66% compared to an OECD country average of 40%. However, this disguises some of the ill-feeling towards local government officials, who are usually held accountable by the people. This could change though, as economic policy, typically the role of central government, leads to growing inequality. New leadership within the government is attempting to maintain and improve government trust, by introducing ‘Mao-esque’ techniques in an attempt to bring everyone together under one nation.
It is clear that censorship is one way of trying to achieve this, as those who openly promote citizens’ rights, inclusive democracy and transparency are regularly arrested, including Xu Zhiyong. Additionally, new training materials for journalists and editors suggest a government eager to maintain control, as they expect that the media “must be loyal to the party, adhere to the party’s leadership and make the principle of loyalty to the party the principle of journalistic profession.”
Recently, a planned protest to honour a strike over censorship last year was pre-emptively halted, when police warned or detained several people thought to be involved. A well-known campaigner for freedom of expression, Wu Wei, said that protests such as this were not accepted by the government, as they did not fit “within their social stability framework.”
The government is so concerned over social instability that Tiananmen Square is heavily monitored by uniformed and plain-clothed police. The ability to suppress dissent as quickly as possible is necessary in a popular tourist destination, to portray the image of a peaceful China to both international and domestic visitors. The digital censorship employed the government is reflected in physical terms by the large security presence in one of China’s most well-known but contentious landmarks.
The Chinese government is keen to have control over the nation’s information, and fear that freedom of expression and information could pose a threat to their power. Social media offers a critical viewpoint that is lacking from state-controlled media. However, even social media has not been able to completely detach itself from the Chinese government’s censorship.
Nonetheless, the increasing use of social media and rapid spread of information is putting pressure on the government that it has never felt before while the digital revolution is gaining more and more momentum. Democratic consciousness is rising in China and with the state pursuing an oppressive agenda, cultural change from the bottom-up, rather than institutionalised change from the top-down, is necessary to pursue these principles.