China Cracks Down on Domestic Social Media While US Companies Try to Get In
Last week the Chinese government cracked down on political groups on a Chinese-born social media app. WeChat, also known as Weixin in Chinese, is an extremely popular messaging app with features akin to a combination of Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The app has almost 300 million users worldwide and is growing quickly.
It is well known that the Chinese government strictly monitors and censors its internet, and cracks down heavily on any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, including deleting undesirable accounts and posts on social media. However, until last Thursday WeChat had not undergone any major purges of accounts by government censors. The reason that WeChat is allowed to operate in China while foreign social media outlets are not (excepting LinkedIn) is because its parent company, Tencent, agreed to government censorship laws. Of course, as a Chinese company, they have no choice.
Sina is another Chinese media company that has a fierce rivalry with Tencent. Sina operates the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, and has agreed to self-censor its users as part of its license. The Chinese government has notoriously detained Weibo users who make statements against the Party as a way to crack down on “rumors.” Users whose posts receive too much publicity via “shares” are likely to be scrutinized by the government as to whether their claims are true or not.
Weibo’s user base has not been as strong as in the past. According to The Diplomat, over one-third of users who quit Weibo last year switched over to WeChat, potentially with the hope that it is not as closely monitored by the government.
This crackdown on WeChat came as a surprise to many. This may be because while on Weibo, you can openly transmit your opinion to everyone on the web, while on WeChat you generally only communicate with your friends. However, the accounts that have been deleted from WeChat were large scale pages to which users could subscribe and follow. The crackdown is bad news for Tencent, because it is attempting to expand WeChat’s global reach. It is already popular in much of Asia, and is trying to move into the Western market, including the United States. However, many Western users are likely to oppose using an app that is subject to such intense monitoring and censorship.
This surprise change in policy comes around the same time as (but most likely not related to) an announcement by Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo that he will be visiting Shanghai this week. He claims his visit is purely for tourism reasons, but he will also meet with representatives of Shanghai’s newly christened “Pilot Free Trade Zone.” This is significant because there are rumors that Facebook, which is also banned in China, will be accessible within the geographic limits of the free trade zone. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has visited China in the past, and has made public statements that he would like access to the Chinese market. If the rumors are true, then it appears his efforts have paid off, and Costolo may be looking for a way into the market.
Unlike LinkedIn, which stated it will comply with local censorship laws, Google has refused to do so. Google used to have a strong presence in China, but its business suffered as it fought against censoring its web search results. For example, in the past when you searched “Tiananmen Square June 4, 1989” (the place and date of the infamous massacre of “Tank Man” fame), you were brought to a page that explained the results were censored by the government. Google has recently declared that it will begin encrypting its search results in order to prevent government censorship. When you try to use Google in China now, you are automatically routed to Google Hong Kong, and when you search for the massacre, you are shown the proper results. However, there is also a warning that states search results in Simplified Chinese (the writing system used in mainland China) are limited.
It appears the Chinese government is playing both sides of the field by regulating domestic social media while trying to become a more foreign-friendly business environment. Social media, as well as freedom of speech in China, is still evolving.