BEIJING Dec 12 The day before China's Communist
Party published one of its most important policy statements in a
decade, a copy of the reform plans was already circulating on
Chinese social media.
The unprecedented Nov. 14 leak fuelled China's biggest stock
market rally in two months as it spread on microblogs and passed
from smartphone to smartphone on WeChat, a three-year-old social
messaging app developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd.
WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese, meaning "micromessage", leapt
from 121 million global monthly active users at the end of
September 2012 to 272 million in just a year. It has quickly
become the news source of choice for savvy mobile users in
China, where a small army of censors scrub the country's
Internet of politically sensitive news and "harmful" speech.
"For me WeChat is an essential tool," said Hu Jia, a
Unlike popular microblogging services such as Sina Corp's
Sina Weibo, where messages can reach millions of people
in minutes, WeChat allows users to communicate in small, private
circles of friends, and send text and voice messages for free -
a big part of its success.
"Weibo is like a public square, and Weixin is like your
sitting room," said Min Jiang, an associate professor studying
China's Internet at the University of North Carolina at
WeChat limits the size of ordinary chatrooms to 40 people,
and public pages, which users can subscribe to, can only post
one message a day.
That does not mean communications cannot be monitored or
censored, but it does give users a way to avoid running afoul of
the government's new rules, that hold users accountable for
"online rumours" read by 5,000 people or re-posted 500 times.
It may also be good news for China's rulers, because
messages do not spread as rapidly as on Weibo's open platform.
"WeChat is less of a potential threat to the authorities
than Weibo is," said one of the founders of the anti-censorship
site GreatFire.org, who goes by the pseudonym Martin Johnson.
"People mostly use WeChat to exchange messages with people
they already know. I still think the censors pay more attention
to cleaning up Weibo. Weibo messages have the potential to reach
millions of people very fast."
Weibo has been particularly singled-out in the ongoing
crackdown on "rumour-mongering" by China's stability-obsessed
government, which views public protest as a threat to its
But WeChat has not escaped the government's attention, and
its explosive growth means it is attracting more scrutiny than
ever from the authorities.
"Online communications and national security has already
become a conspicuous problem standing before us," said President
Xi Jinping during a speech in November, in which he mentioned
WeChat by name.
Social media operators in China are required to help censor
content on behalf of the government, which trains their
employees for the purpose.
Hu, the dissident, says the police have quoted him back
messages he has sent through WeChat.
"Even though you know it's not safe... you have no choice,
you need to use it, because all your friends are using it too
much," he said. "I can still share many things related to human
rights and politics."
In January, users were blocked from sending messages
containing the characters for "nanfang zhoumo", Chinese for
"Southern Weekly", a newspaper that was in open revolt against
press control in Guangdong province.
Tencent's self-censorship, which has been shown to block
sensitive messages sent outside China as well, may also affect
its efforts to push WeChat outside China. The platform already
has more than 100 million users outside China, and the company
has signed soccer star Lionel Messi to promote it overseas.
"A big issue for Tencent would be convincing Americans and
Europeans that they're not operating under the same
self-censorship principles outside China as in China," said Doug
Young, the Shanghai-based author of The Party Line. "Image-wise
that could hurt them in their global expansion."
A spokesman for Tencent declined to comment on its
censorship of WeChat because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"A CONSPICUOUS PROBLEM"
WeChat's relative newness means researchers are still
studying how the app's censorship and monitoring work.
"If controls are present on the server side it makes it much
more difficult to verify," said Masashi Crete-Nishihata,
research manager of Citizen Lab, a research centre at the
University of Toronto. "And so far we suspect that's implemented
on the server side."
Citizen Lab has already been able to show that Line, another
smartphone messaging app created by Line Corp, a Japanese
subsidiary of South Korea's Naver Corp, blocks a
regularly updated list of banned phrases in China. Work they did
with the University of New Mexico found that the use of censored
words in the old Chinese version of Skype could also trigger
Microsoft Corp switched its Chinese partner for
Skype in November and the programme is now believed to be more
Weibo, the microblog, uses a computer system to scan each
post before publication so sensitive ones can be flagged for
censors employed by Sina, who decide whether to delete them.
"Just knowing how the censoring apparatus works, my personal
guess would be they're going to use the same mechanisms," said
Gary King, a Harvard professor who has researched how social
media platforms are censored in China, but not WeChat.
Tencent's 15-year-old instant messaging service, QQ, is
subject to active monitoring and censorship, according to
Speaking at a conference in London in November, Google Inc
Chairman Eric Schmidt recalled a meeting with President
Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, just weeks after China passed its new
regulations on "online rumours".
"The most interesting thing about talking to the government,
from the president all the way to the governors, is that they
are obsessed with the Internet," said Schmidt, without
elaborating on their conversations.
Authorities have signalled that they plan to increase their
control of social media, including WeChat, and further "manage"
"If anything happens and it becomes explosive, everybody
knows that Weixin will be the next target," said Jiang, of the
University of North Carolina at Charlotte.