China is increasing its censorship of political speech in support of liberating Hong Kong. This time, the country is moving towards censoring the messages of US citizens on the WeChat app – an app most popular in China and has over 1 billion active users.
WeChat is owned by Tencent.
While the app is based in China, and mostly used in China by Chinese citizens, there are some Americans in the US that use the app regularly to stay in touch with friends.
However, these users are finding that when they talk about Hong Kong via the app, their messages are disappearing – and, for some users, their accounts are being suspended completely.
While Chinese companies have been known for their strong ties to the Communist Chinese government in China and citizens in the country are used to facing censorship, the outright censorship of those living outside of China has been somewhat rarer.
The censorship of citizens outside of the country and outside of Chinese influence is an escalation.
Citizen Lab research has previously suggested that Tencent has often used a two-part system to differentiate which users get heavy censorship (within mainland China) and which users get more leniency.
WeChat performs its censorship centrally on the server – meaning that messages sent from the app pass through a remote server that has filter rules in place. If certain strings of phrases are detected, the message is deleted. If a user repeatedly uses these phrases, they get suspended from the app.
As can be seen by this example, it's often not that certain words are blocked – it's certain combinations of words used in a certain way that gets censored.
Users had set up a petition on Whitehouse.org earlier in the year to try and raise the awareness of the issue but the petition didn't get enough signatures to get any attention.
The petition said:
“In recent months, large numbers of WeChat users and accounts in North America have been blocked and censored, in some cases, completely banned. The ongoing serious abuse and violation of free speech rights are the result of Beijing's iron grip…it is well understood that a foreign company operating in the U.S. must comply to the laws and regulations of the U.S. The Congress and the President must stand tall for America and American values and tell Tencent either to follow our laws or get out of America completely.”
The Verge reported that a man named Bin Xie had his WeChat account banned after the Houston-based information security analyst wrote “The pro-China candidates totally lost” on WeChat, simply a comment on the results of the recent election in Hong Kong.
Xie told The Verge that he has now joined a WhatsApp group for Chinese Americans who have been censored on WeChat.