Can WeChat survive latest censorship clampdown?
Tencent Holdings’s WeChat application icon and website on display.
Beijing’s latest “clean-up” effort may dent WeChat’s global expansion plans, but analysts say the popular messaging app will tide through the month-long censorship operation.
Authorities are targeting instant messaging services in the censorship campaign that started on May 27, according to state media Xinhua. They are focused on violence, terrorism, pornography and fraud.
Tencent’s WeChat has been singled out due to its popularity, but this is not the first time. In March, it removed at least 40 accounts with political, economic and legal content. In May, the mainland’s state broadcaster CCTV criticized the messaging service for bombarding users with deceptive ads and excessive information.
WeChat is the frontrunner in China’s messaging space, and users are unlikely to ditch the app due to fresh censorship measures.
Launched in 2011, WeChat – also known as Weixin – took China by storm, attracting 50 million users in the first year; it now boasts of nearly 396 million users globally.
“While there may be short-term displeasure to the shutdown of some accounts, I think (censorship) is accepted by Chinese users and that even if it’s a private app, there’s still monitoring,” said James Roy, Associate Principal at China Market Research Group (CMR).
Twenty-four year old WeChat user Jing Chen agrees: “I believe there won’t be absolute freedom of speech. The censoring of some sensitive topics is unavoidable, no matter where we are in the world.”
“Excessive advertisement or censorship, to be honest, I don’t really care. My main purpose is to stay connected with my friends,” said twenty-one year old student Hong Sen Liu who uses WeChat for around three hours per day told CNBC. “Without it, I’ll feel really uncomfortable.”
The tightening steps come before the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and are similar to last year’s clean-up on Sina’s Weibo – the Chinese version of Twitter – that saw users take flight.
But WeChat’s identity as a private communication platform will insulate it from censorship.
Xiaofeng Wang, analyst at Forrester Research told CNBC: “WeChat is not a public platform. Rather it’s a communication tool for private social circles so censorship doesn’t really apply.”
“The campaign targets politically sensitive material but the volume of that on WeChat is actually very small,” CMR’s Roy added.
Censorship may not pose a threat to WeChat’s popularity in the mainland but could hurt global expansion plans.
The latest clampdown may affect how WeChat is perceived by users outside of China and lead to concerns that messages overseas may also fall within the radar of Chinese censors, analysts say.
“[Censorship] is an issue that WeChat faces continuously in their attempt to go global. [Authorities] were previously censoring Chinese characters or materials on the Chinese servers but it’s hard to get a clear understanding what Beijing can enforce beyond that. So that’s always going to create some doubt among global users (whether) to use WeChat,” said CMR’s Roy.
— Written by See Kit Tang; Additional Reporting by Wendy Min