China’s dominant messaging app WeChat now has one billion accounts worldwide. The popularity of the platform, however, has not diminished concerns over how the app acts hand-in-glove with the Chinese regime, sharing private user data with it and helping to implement censorship.
Pony Ma, chief executive of WeChat’s parent company Tencent, said on March 5 that the platform had hit the landmark figure of one billion users during last month’s Lunar New Year festival. Ma gave the remark to reporters when he was attending the annual session of the National People’s Congress—the Chinese regime’s rubber-stamp parliament.
WeChat later clarified that this means the total user accounts and not the number of individuals, which could be much less than the stunning figure of one billion. Market research firm eMarketer estimated last year that WeChat had 494.3 million individual users in China, according to a Financial Times report. WeChat had also reported last September that its user accounts grew by 15.8 percent annually.
WeChat growth outside of China reflects the large number of Chinese migrants, students, and travelers around the world. Inside China, WeChat has extensive working relationships with all levels of the Chinese state and has become an essential platform used in daily micro-transactions, taxi-hailing, news services, and food delivery, among other uses.
Tool of Censorship and Surveillance
The dominance of WeChat in China has been widely attributed to the company’s close collaboration with the Chinese regime in implementing self-censorship and surveillance mechanisms. WhatsApp and other global messaging apps that might have competed with WeChat have mostly been blocked or otherwise forced out of China’s massive market.
A 2016 survey done by Amnesty International that ranks the world’s most popular messaging apps in terms of privacy protection for users gave WeChat a score of 0 out of 100, meaning that users of WeChat receive little or no encryption protection for their communications, and the app is completely exposed to censorship and surveillance.
Unlike other messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat does not provide end-to-end encryption between users. Instead, WeChat employs what is called “transport encryption” that encrypts messages only between the user and WeChat’s servers. In addition to the extra security vulnerability such a process introduces, it also means that WeChat servers in China would essentially keep a record of all messages.
WeChat would “retain, preserve or disclose” users’ data to “comply with applicable laws or regulations,” the new user agreement says. Because the Chinese regime’s law enforcement agencies and security apparatus do not need a search warrant to seize a citizen’s property or private data, the regime would essentially have access to just about everything WeChat users send through the app.
At my annual China visa renewal:
Police officer: I saw you posted on social media about organising an event for journalists on the 8th
Me: I don't think I did…
Me: *thinks, does he realise he saw that by surveilling my private messages and not on my public feed*
— Yuan Yang (@YuanfenYang) February 9, 2018
Yuan Yang, a reporter for the Financial Times stationed in Beijing, tweeted in February that a Chinese police officer inquired about her online activity during her visa renewal application. It was implied that the question could have been prompted by the authority’s routine snooping into her WeChat private messages—exactly the type of surveillance that WeChat consistently denied that it provided to the Chinese regime.
In 2017, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che was arrested when he arrived in mainland China and later convicted of “subversion” after a Chinese court found him “guilty” of sending pro-democracy messages to others through WeChat and other messaging platforms.
The sentencing of a Taiwanese citizen to jail based in part on dissenting messages made through WeChat raises the concern that citizens from other countries—such as the United States, could face the same fate when they travel to China.