This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Concerns are growing over overseas censorship and surveillance via Tencent’s WeChat social media app, with the U.S. banning business with its parent entity, and rights activists describing it as a “prison” that keeps users within reach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s censors and law enforcement operations far beyond China’s borders.
Launched by Tencent in 2011, WeChat now has more than 1.1 billion users, second only to WhatsApp and Facebook, but the company keeps users behind China’s complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, even when they are physically in another country.
The app is also used by China’s state security police to carry out surveillance and harassment of dissidents and activists in exile who speak out about human rights abuses in the country, or campaign for democratic reform.
And it’s not just Chinese nationals who are being targeted.
In May 2020, researchers at CitizenLab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto warned that anyone using WeChat, even if they have lived their whole lives outside China, is “subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.”
Documents and images transmitted entirely among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance wherein these files are analyzed for content that is politically sensitive in China, the report, titled “We Chat, They Watch,” said.
“International users must consider an ethical issue: whenever they use WeChat, they are actually helping to train algorithmic robots to help oppress domestic users in China,” CitizenLab director Ron Deibert told RFA.
He said there are “very serious” security and privacy issues associated with WeChat and other Chinese apps, and called on app stores to highlight risks to users before they download such apps.
U.S.-based rights activist Zhou Fengsuo said Chinese censorship has been allowed to flourish on American soil, in spite of the relative freedom of the online environment outside of China.
“The United States’ mistake has been that its free and open internet has allowed the CCP to occupy territory here, and build [virtual] fortresses that treat people as [virtual] slaves,” Zhou said.
“WeChat is extending the boundaries of the Chinese internet overseas,” he said. “It is unprecedented to use a country’s freedom in the interests of a country that restricts freedom.”
“It’s a kind of [cultural] cleansing. It makes me very angry to see it,” he said.
Wang Yaqiu, a China researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the use of WeChat by Chinese nationals even when overseas means that they have access to a less free version of the internet, even when outside China.
“For us, [WeChat] is like the Berlin Wall, or a prison,” Wang told RFA. “It’s very common for material posted on WeChat by Chinese overseas to be censored by the Chinese government.”
A source who has worked in online surveillance in China told RFA that any social media platform operating overseas are strictly regulated by the ministry of public security’s online supervision department, according to provisions in China’s national security legislation requiring Chinese companies to cooperate with security services at all times.
The source, who gave only a surname, You, said apps are only allowed to be developed in the first place through a strictly controlled system of licensing, meaning that the technical features of any software are also subject to technical input from the ministry.
“The Chinese authorities don’t allow apps to set up large user databases privately in overseas markets,” You said. “They can only send the data back to China.”
TikTok data fears
Such apps are also banned from cooperating with similar data requests from security and law enforcement agencies in other countries, he said.
“If that happens, they have to notify the Chinese government first, and then the data [must be destroyed].”
U.S. President Donald Trump last week issued a ban on U.S. transactions with Tencent and ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of video-sharing app TikTok, citing a security threat posed by the transfer of data belonging to U.S. citizens to China.
“The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” Trump said in the order targeting TikTok says, noting that the app has been downloaded more than 175 million times in the U.S.
The order also highlighted reports that the app censors content China deems politically sensitive, including protests over issues of autonomy in Hong Kong and Beijing’s abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and said it could be used to spread disinformation to benefit the CCP.
California-based lawyer Zhu Keliang said there are some security concerns, but that he and around 200 other Chinese-American lawyers are filing a legal challenge to the order because they rely on WeChat to stay in touch with loved ones back home.
“There is some truth to the concerns, and there are many problems with WeChat, but other apps such as Facebook … in the U.S. have issues related to data security and monopoly too,” Zhu told RFA. “But Americans should have the right to decide whether or not they will use it.”
“I don’t think President Trump has the right to do that for us,” Zhu said, adding that he believes that the move is disproportionate.
He said the lawyers are thinking about filing lawsuits in Washington State and California, and applying to the court for a temporary injunction to suspend the implementation of the executive orders, which are due to take effect on Sept. 20, 2020.
According to NBC, TikTok has also filed a lawsuit challenging the order at a federal court in southern California.
Tencent and ByteDance hadn’t responded to requests for comment by the time of writing.