What’s Wrong with WeChat? The Problem with Social Media Censorship

WeChat is a Chinese social media app that, until recently, was probably not widely known in the Western world. This changed with a decision of the US government to prohibit its hosting, distribution and maintenance, as well as its use for financial transactions, alongside the more widely known TikTok. This decision has had significant implications for many Chinese people living in the United States.

So what is WeChat, and what does it do? In short, WeChat is Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Uber, and many public services all rolled into one. Published by the giant Chinese media corporation Tencent, WeChat plays a central role in social life in China as well as among overseas Chinese people. Within China, the app has accrued functions that reach far beyond Western social media, such as Facebook, Instragram, and so forth. It serves as a platform for instant communication, voice and video calls, photo sharing, blog posts and discussion fora, takeaway and taxi orders, and so on. At the same time, it can be used to pay taxes, settle your utility bills, transfer money and make payments, engage with a range of public services, and identify yourself vis-à-vis a range of public officials. It is only rivalled by Alibaba Group’s equally ubiquitous app Zhifubao (支付宝), known in English as Alipay. For overseas Chinese and Chinese Americans, it may be a crucial communication tool to stay in touch with friends and family, and to send and receive money. There is an international version of WeChat, but its use recently seems to have become severely restricted, requiring a Chinese mobile number or sponsorship of one’s account by a Chinese user.

In any case, the sudden threat to its services in the US is likely to have severe effects for WeChat’s users, and it has been criticized as an expression of racism on the part of the Trump administration and an undue targeting of the Chinese American community. At the time of writing, the ban has been successfully challenged in US courts, in response to concerns about infringements of free speech that may result from the prohibition of a major online communications platform. (The same has been the case for TikTok, as a ruling Sunday illustrates.)

However, the US government justifies the ban with the threats WeChat allegedly poses to national security:

“While the threats posed by WeChat and TikTok are not identical, they are similar. Each collects vast swaths of data from users, including network activity, location data, and browsing and search histories. Each is an active participant in China’s civil-military fusion and is subject to mandatory cooperation with the intelligence services of the CCP.  This combination results in the use of WeChat and TikTok creating unacceptable risks to our national security.”

Critics of WeChat have likewise argued that the app serves as a propaganda and surveillance tool that targets both its Chinese and its international users and extends repression to Chinese dissidents overseas (1, 2, 3).

These arguments require careful disentangling. Beyond the obvious racism of the Trump administration’s anti-Chinese rhetoric throughout the present year (1, 2, 3), it is important to critically interrogate the roles which WeChat may play in the political project of the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, as Wanning Sun has rightly pointed out in The Conversation, it is essential not to overlook the diversity of the app’s users at the international level and the heterogeneity of the discourses that may flow through it.

WeChat primarily operates as a smartphone app. There is a desktop client, but its functions are limited in comparison to the software’s smartphone version. The identity of smartphone users in China is registered upon the purchase of a SIM card, and to set up a new WeChat account, it is likewise necessary that users identify themselves. This has two important consequences. On the one hand, in the absence of robust privacy protections in China, WeChat’s users become enmeshed in what Shoshana Zuboff has termed ‘surveillance capitalism’, as users’ data are systematically collected and appropriated by a range of public and private commercial actors in the pursuit of profit.

Just as much as the actions of social media corporations such as Facebook have provoked concern elsewhere, the collection of big data and citizens’ rights to privacy have become an issue of concern in China. From this perspective, there seems to be no particularly strong rationale for singling out WeChat for a ban in the USA, as it is only one element of the global challenge posed by surveillance capitalism.

On the other hand, though, WeChat forms part of what might be termed the ‘China bubble’. Totalitarianism works best when its operations are invisible, and when the norms, values, and beliefs that sustain totalitarian rule are internalised, as fully as possible, by its subjects. This is where the problem lies. WeChat is closely monitored by the Chinese authorities, and censorship operates by way of bans on certain topics, keywords, and so forth. Alongside such censorship, the close surveillance of its users has entailed direct repression (1, 2). In this sense, Wanning Sun’s argument that WeChat “censorship […] did not amount to direct intervention of the platform or control of its content by the Chinese Communist Party” and that its users in Australia  use the platform to engage in civic debate and action seems misleading. It is possible to articulate diverse opinions and political positions on WeChat only as long as these do not contradict the positions of the Chinese Communist Party or the interests of China’s political leaders. The consequences of this pattern became readily apparent during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when censorship allowed the virus to spread and whistle-blowers found themselves punished for publicly discussing it (1, 2). Free speech this is not.

WeChat therefore confines public debate to topics, arguments, ideas, and facts that China’s rulers regard as permissible. It operates within an online ecosphere which, through the systematic censorship of non-Chinese spaces, has become largely self-enclosed. Within this ‘China bubble’, diverse views and opinions circulate in detachment from the international media environments, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to mould, by censorship and manipulation, the ways in which people think and feel about the social world. This social engineering of modes of everyday experience and public attitudes is most intense in China. The promotion of aggressive forms of nationalism in media spaces in China is one obvious recent examples here (1, 2). At the same time, WeChat, as an indispensable feature of everyday life for many overseas Chinese, extends the reach of such social engineering to the international level. In making WeChat an omnipresent feature of life in the People’s Republic of China, Tencent have created a digital dystopia.

And yet, it appears doubtful whether WeChat should be banned in response. Politically, the ban seems unwise. It is unlikely that censorship in response to censorship will convince many of WeChat’s users of the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party’s politics. More importantly still, there are obvious and strong concerns about the rights of WeChat’s many users around the World, as communication among families and friends is cut, digital communities are separated, and long-distance social and economic ties are severed. In order to counteract the global extension of the CCP’s totalitarian project, less heavy-handed and authoritarian measures will be needed.

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