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Censorship in China

China’s WhatsApp users find ‘blocked’ messaging functions partially restored

Users had earlier complained of not being able to send or receive photos and video on the chat tool without a VPN

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2017, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2017, 1:22pm

Update, July 19, Wednesday:

WhatsApp users on mainland China reported partially restored functions on Wednesday after experiencing trouble using the instant messaging tool on Tuesday.

Some users now appear to be able to send sound clips and photos, after reports of service disruptions a day earlier.

Tests with South China Morning Post reporters stationed in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou showed different results, with Shanghai users experiencing the most difficulties.

A spokeswoman with Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, declined to comment on the service disruption on the mainland.

The Post’s staff members in Guangzhou on Wednesday found no issues sending and receiving text messages, videos, pictures and sound clips to and from local as well as overseas WhatsApp users.

But in Beijing, while reporters could receive most multimedia content, but the transmission of photos still seemed to be a hit-and-miss. Some pictures sent from overseas users could be displayed only as pixelated previews and could not be downloaded in full size.

Tests with two users in Shanghai using local mobile networks failed to send and receive pictures. A staff member also failed to register to use WhatsApp with a local mobile phone number.

Some mainland mobile network users reported on Tuesday that they could not send and receive multimedia content, though the app’s text messaging service appeared largely normal.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he had no information on the issue when asked by reporters on Tuesday, Associated Press reported.

July 18, Tuesday:

Chinese users had trouble using the popular WhatsApp instant messaging tool on Tuesday, with many fearing it is the latest victim of Beijing’s internet clampdown.

Most of the affected users said they could not send or receive photos using the chat app, which is owned by Facebook, without a virtual private network.

VPNs are used to skirt Beijing’s censorship system – which blocks websites with information that could be critical of the Communist Party such as YouTube, Twitter and foreign news sites – by rerouting internet traffic elsewhere.

Some users said they could not get WhatsApp to connect to the internet on Tuesday without a VPN.

In a test conducted by the South China Morning Post in the afternoon, two users registered with mainland Chinese mobile numbers were unable to send videos or pictures to each other via WhatsApp.

Beijing tries to pull the plug on VPNs in internet ‘clean-up’

One of the users then tried, and failed, to send the video and photo files to an overseas number. When that person tried to send a photo to the mainland Chinese user from overseas, the message was ­received but the photo was only displayed as a loading thumbnail.

There was no problem sending and receiving text messages, and all services appeared normal when connected to a VPN.

Beijing’s ongoing campaign to “clean up” the internet has seen VPN providers shut down, celebrity gossip accounts closed and video content restricted.

WhatsApp is one of the few foreign messaging apps available in mainland China. Whats­App is not as popular as the local app WeChat, but it is favoured by some for its end-to-end encryption.

WeChat, however, which is owned by tech giant Tencent, has been found to be censoring messages deemed sensitive by Beijing without notifying its users, according to reports by Toronto-based Citizen Lab.

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A member of a non-governmental labour welfare group in Shenzhen, who did not wish to be named, told the Post he had been unable to use Whats­App since 8am, but other apps on his phone, including WeChat, were fine. He regularly uses WhatsApp to communicate for work as the messages are encrypted. “WhatsApp is much safer than WeChat,” he said. “Today I didn’t talk to my colleagues at all. It’s very confusing.”

WhatsApp and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment. Facebook’s flagship social networking site and its photo-sharing service Instagram are both blocked in mainland China. Foreign chat apps blocked in ­recent years include Tokyo-based Line and Berlin-based Telegram.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong