WeChat users censoring content amid China crackdown on social media
Creators of online groups tightening control of posts as they will be held responsible for the content under regulations coming into force next month
Self-censorship is kicking in fast on WeChat as China’s new rules on message groups cast a chill among the 963 million users of Tencent Holdings’ social network.
Regulations released last week made creators of online groups responsible for managing information within their forums and the behaviour of members.
The measure do not take effect until next month, but the authorities have jumped into action by disciplining 40 people in one group for spreading petition letters and arresting a man who complained about police raids, according to reports in official Chinese media.
The prospect of punishment for the actions of others has led many administrators to disband groups while others circulate self-imposed rules discouraging the spreading of rumours or unauthorised information about Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Some are turning to alternatives, such as encrypted messaging apps, to avoid government scrutiny. The regulations are the latest in a series of moves carried out by the authorities as China ramps up for the politically sensitive period of the 19th Communist Party congress this autumn.
“WeChat is really the modern printing press, so of course there will be restrictions,“ said Duncan Clark, chairman of technology consulting firm BDA China and a shareholder of Tencent. “If you are an investor in Tencent, you are basically betting on management’s ability to adjust to policies and yet still be able to create a product that people like.”
Tencent’s WeChat and QQ, which has 662 million mobile users, evolved from instant messaging to become true social networks by adding news feeds, photo sharing and other services. Anyone can create a group, usually of as many as 500 people, to share pictures, voice chats and links to websites.
Jane Yip, a spokeswoman for Shenzhen based Tencent, did not respond to a request for comment.
Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, went through similar tightening a few years ago when users were required to reveal their real identities and opinion leaders were arrested for comments.
As smartphones became pervasive, users shifted to then nascent WeChat, which was under less scrutiny, fuelling Tencent’s rise to become a US$400 billion empire today. Weibo has a market value of US$23 billion.
Qiao Mu, a former journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University who recently emigrated to the US, had four personal WeChat accounts and 16 public ones deleted without his consent.
“WeChat groups scared the party because it’s the simplest way to mobilise and organise a group of people,“ Qiao said. “The new rule is an upgrade as they want to hush people and enforce self-censorship. They want to avoid mass incidents and prevent crises before they emerge.”
Whether Tencent can navigate the more stringent policies while keeping users happy remains to be seen.
The new rules apply to all internet and mobile forums, meaning there are few alternatives.
While virtual private networks can provide access to blocked messaging services such as Line and Telegram, the country is zeroing in on such services. Apple is removing many VPNs from its Chinese app store to comply with local rules.
“People in China are really between a rock and a hard place,” said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the school of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.