We all know how China is keen on blocking access to the majority of the world’s online services, with social media and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram being the main targets. In fact, Snapchat was blocked not too long ago and new internet censorship laws are approved regularly in the country, a fact that has led Freedom House to classify China as the most online repressed country in 2016. So, it’s really not a surprise for Chinese users to experience some interruptions on their favorite services.
This is exactly what happened with the popular communication tool WhatsApp, which started receiving some trouble when users were sending photos, videos or sometimes even just plain text. WhatsApp was actually one of the few services that managed to avoid major blocks, despite its parent company Facebook having been kicked out of the country long ago. But this is no longer true since, according to the New York Times, security experts have confirmed that the block originated from the government, which makes WhatsApp the latest victim of China’s Great Firewall.
The Rise of the Chinese Services and Even More Censorship
More than a political measure against foreign – mostly American – companies, this is also an economical one, as the blank space that these services leave is quickly filled with a similar Chinese alternative. For instance, Google was replaced by Baidu and Twitter’s competitor Weibo now runs uncontested, so it’s only a matter of time for WeChat to become the most used messaging platform in the country after its main foreign competitor was blocked.
Considering that China is the most populated country in the world, it’s not hard to imagine how good this is for its economy, since every single active internet user will have no other choice than to use the country’s native alternatives. Not only that, but the Chinese government is already aware of the increasing popularity of geo-circumvention tools in the country, namely VPNs, and have already openly declared war to them, trying to limit access to equivalent Western services even more. Fortunately, however, there are still some VPNs that can slip under the radar and still work in China.
WeChat vs WhatsApp
For those who aren’t familiar with it, WeChat was released in 2011 and besides being the most popular option in China it is also currently one of the largest standalone messaging apps, with over 938 million active users every month, many even outside of China. It’s just like WhatsApp: it allows to send text and voice messages, photos, videos and the like and it even has its own version of the much-acclaimed social feed of friends’ updates. This is called Moments and, ironically, it can be also linked to Facebook and Twitter accounts, naturally only for those that use it outside of China.
But WeChat also has its own share of infamy, mainly due to the censorship that it applies. Because WeChat’s servers are all located in China, in 2013 users started reporting that even outside the country some Chinese language searches were being filtered, displaying a message on user’s screens that warned about “restricted words”. This led WeChat to build two different platforms: one for mainland China users and one for the rest of the world.
Regardless of the greater amount of people that will join WeChat in the next months, Chinese users will have to deal with censorship in this app too, as that same keyword filtering and other restrictions on Moments are still being applied by the app within the country’s borders.