Hong Kong - Self-censorship is kicking in
fast on WeChat as China’s new rules on message groups casts a chill
among the 963 million users of
Tencent's social network.
Regulations released on September 7 made creators of online groups
responsible for managing information within their forums and the
behaviour of members. While they don’t take effect until October,
authorities have jumped into action by disciplining 40 people in one
group for spreading petition letters while arresting a man who
complained about police raids, according to reports in official Chinese
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 authorities, as China
ramps up for the politically sensitive period of the 19th Communist
“WeChat is really the modern printing press, so of course there will
be restrictions," said
Duncan Clark, chairperson 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 spokesperson for Shenzhen-based Tencent, didn’t 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, fueling
Tencent’s rise to become a $400bn-empire today. Weibo has a market
value of $23bn.
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
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.
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