With more than 1.1 billion users worldwide, WeChat is a popular social media and messaging app developed by Chinese technology giant Tencent Holdings.
While the number of its overseas users continues to increase, more and more evidence shows that WeChat is a tool of censorship, monitoring, and suppression wielded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In other words, the app is the digital “eyes, ears, and fists” of the regime.
Bradley Thayer, a professor of political science at the University of Texas San Antonio and Han Lianchao, Vice President at Citizen Power Initiatives for China recently published an article on U.S. politics website The Hill titled “The Faustian bargain of WeChat: China shackles the world”.
In the column, the two experts cited a number of facts regarding WeChat’s active censorship. Installing WeChat is like putting on electronic shackles, and its potential threat is comparable to that of Huawei. They also called on U.S. politicians to take WeChat’s threat seriously and launch an investigation into it.
“We… warn that WeChat seriously violates the human rights of the Chinese people and threatens the security of the United States and the free world,” Han tweeted on the same day. “We call on the United States to investigate the role of WeChat in censorship and monitoring, prohibit government personnel from using WeChat, promote its removal from the market, and review all Tencent’s investments in the United States. It must be banned like Huawei to avoid future problems.”
WeChat Began with a Monopoly
The WeChat app has been growing by more than 100 million users a year since 2011, the authors said, as the CCP banned foreign-developed social media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Line. WeChat first deployed overseas in Southeast Asia and has expanded to Europe. Most of the four million Chinese expats in the United States have WeChat accounts.
The information flow transmitted through WeChat is huge. On average, more than 38 billion messages are sent daily, and more than 14 million companies actively engage users on WeChat. WeChat’s popularity is largely due to its convenience, allowing people to do almost everything from buying stocks, sending money, to chatting with friends and family.
But such convenience comes at a “Faustian” price. The CCP authorities monitor, collect, store, analyze, review and access all information on WeChat. Overseas data, such as those collected from users in India and Taiwan, are also sent to Tencent’s data servers in China to be analyzed. WeChat is different from Facebook and other social media apps because those American companies don’t share data to the government.
Controlled by Beijing, WeChat is a Censorship Tool of the CCP
The article also revealed that WeChat has a resident Internet “police station,” which is set up by China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and oversees the platform to enforce CCP guidelines 24/7. The authorities have unfettered access to users’ personal information. Once WeChat is installed on smartphones, it is like an electronic shackle: it monitors users’ entire online activity and collects metadata that reveals almost everything about them.
According to the article, unlike Facebook or Fitbit, WeChat collects a wider range of metadata because it covers almost every aspect of daily life and the data is accessible to the government. In essence, this social media platform is a tool for implementing CCP regime’s censorship and oversight.
Following Beijing’s instructions, WeChat suppresses freedom of speech by automatically blocking political content on platforms deemed “sensitive” by the authorities, including major news stories such as the China-United States trade war, continuing protests in Hong Kong, and major public health scandals.
WeChat’s overseas users are also censored. Their WeChat accounts can be suspended and groups banned. WeChat’s active censorship in Western countries violates the users’ right to free speech.
Private WeChat Messages become Evidence in Activist Sentencing
The CCP is not content with using WeChat for censorship. In recent years, more and more private WeChat messages have been used as evidence to send dissidents to prison. For example, Huang Shike, a Muslim from Xinjiang province, explained the rituals in a Islam synagogue to his relatives and friends. Huang’s WeChat voicemail messages were used to convict him, and he was sentenced to two years in prison in 2017.
Zhang Haitao, another Xinjiang activist, was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges of subversion for using WeChat to “defame” the CCP.
The authors also said there are credible reports that the CCP’s spy agencies use WeChat to gather intelligence, monitor dissidents overseas, and recruit potential spies. Beijing, for example, has developed sophisticated xRAT spyware related to WeChat and QQ apps to target protesters in Hong Kong. The WeChat app has been used as a backdoor to hijack users’ phones without being detected.
As part of the CCP’s massive surveillance network, Tencent’s research and development aims to advance facial recognition technology and other AI monitoring solutions. Earlier this year Li Muqing, Tencent’s head of “security defense,” boasted about the company’s surveillance capabilities, including facial recognition and sharing evidence with the police.
WeChat Blocks International Students from Contacting Their U.S. Counterparts
In addition, the CCP uses WeChat to spread misinformation and create chaos among overseas students. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce said on July 30 that according to a recent study, more than 90 percent of Chinese students surveyed currently use WeChat as their primary means of online communication. The study involved about 1,000 Chinese students studying at U.S. universities.
About 84 percent of respondents said they rely entirely on Chinese websites for news about the United States. Many non-Chinese text messaging and social media apps are banned in China, forcing Chinese students to use apps such as WeChat to communicate with friends and family at home.
“Through Chinese social media, Chinese students continue to view the United States through this distorted lens. This constant flow of misinformation creates a bubble of fear that discourages Chinese students from fully engaging with American peers while here in the United States,” said Royce.
Canadian Parliament Warns about WeChat’s Infiltration into Western Politics
A report by Vancouver StarMetro in December mentioned that when Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s arrest was the top news story, WeChat blocked coverage of Meng during her bail hearing until she was released on bail.
Canadian media iPolitics reported that MPs and House of Commons staff were told in early July not to use WeChat because of its “potential cybersecurity risks.”
The House’s cyber security team sent an email to MPs, their staff and administrators with the subject named “IT Security Alert – Risks with the WeChat application.”
“Please be advised that the messaging, social media and payment application WeChat poses potential cybersecurity risks to users,” reads the email obtained by iPolitics. “As such, the House of Commons strongly recommends that Members of Parliament and their staff refrain from using it for business—or otherwise sensitive—communications.”
American think tanks and china-watchers have expressed similar concerns that WeChat, opaque and censored by CCP government, is influencing politics from within Western societies, posing a new threat.
WeChat’s Threat is as Serious as that of Huawei
WeChat is dangerous enough, but it’s only one element of the CCP’s plan to control communications. Thayer and Han believe that the bigger danger is to combine WeChat with Huawei’s global 5G networks and cheap smartphones, ZTE’s telecoms infrastructure, Douyin’s growing global popularity, and other Chinese technological innovations. China’s social media communications network appears brilliant, bold, and irresistible for its ubiquity, ease of use, and low prices. Yet it has been used to shackle the global population and advance the interests of the communist regime.
To avoid being imprisoned in China’s digital straitjacket, the free society must work together to prevent it. The authors call on America’s political leaders to do the following:
- Take the threat posed by WeChat as seriously as that of Huawei;
- Initiate an investigation into WeChat’s role in China’s global censorship and surveillance;
- Prohibit U.S. government personnel from installing and using WeChat;
- Urge American companies to deshelf the app from Apple and Google and other online stores; and
- Consider visa sanctions against WeChat, Tencent and their employees responsible for human rights violations.
Additionally, they argued that the United States should increase scrutiny by allowing the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review all of Tencent’s investments in the U.S., including the IPOs of its spinoff companies or companies in which it holds substantial interests, and consider placing WeChat and Tencent on the Commerce Department’s restricted Entity List.