Tea Leaf Nation

Exclusive: Surprising Crackdown on China's Hottest Social Media Platform

WeChat's halcyon days as a media outlet may be numbered.

Welcome to the big leagues, WeChat.

For the past year, the mobile chat app WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese, has been the fresh new face in China's hyperactive social media, stealing millions of members -- not to mention mojo -- from its wounded-but-still-potent archrival, the Twitter-like Sina Weibo. WeChat, which boasts 271 million users, functions primarily as a home for private, friends-only chat groups, but it has also come to host more than two million "public accounts," on which media outlets, business owners, and anyone else wishing to share their views can push out articles to followers once per day. While many WeChat public accounts are affiliated with state-owned media, WeChat has also given rise to "self-media," or media startups comprising independent journalists and editors who have seized the opportunity to build new brand names and reach a new audience. They have done so free of the high-profile censorship crackdowns that have dogged Sina Weibo and its 280 million members -- until now.

On March 13, users visiting some of the highest profile WeChat public accounts -- including individuals like legal scholar Xu Xin, self-media like Consensus Net and Elephant Magazine, and the WeChat presence of one of the accounts affiliated with Caixin, one of China's top finance and political news outlets -- found the accounts had been deleted with no apparent forewarning. Visitors attempting to access those accounts receive a message that the given account "has been repeatedly reported," and upon investigation has been shown to be "in violation of the rules, and all of its functions have been deleted." The message advises users to stop following the accounts.

Wen Yunchao, an outspoken Chinese blogger and media analyst based in New York, says several dozen WeChat accounts have been deleted. He told Foreign Policy that the accounts span subject matter, including "law, history, and culture."

The vast majority of those targeted for deletion are politically liberal. The website of Beijing-based Consensus Net features articles on democracy among other topics. Elephant Magazine's content, still available on other web platforms, includes irreverent articles like one asking why China's top leaders like the late Chairman Mao Zedong and former President Jiang Zemin wore their pants so high. For its part, Caixin is known to harbor liberal DNA and push the envelope of what's considered allowable reporting, although it's skilled at staying on the safe side of authorities' invisible red line. (Not every blocked account stood on the same side of the political spectrum: The WeChat presence of the prominent conservative Maoist website Utopia also got the axe.)

Bloggers now banned from WeChat have taken to Weibo to vent their displeasure. Xu asked, "Which of my articles was sensitive? Which law did I violate? And why didn't I have a chance to answer the charges?" One Beijing-based user who described herself as an e-commerce professional commented that WeChat has "imposed its own law on people who are powerless to resist." Beijing-based reporter Li Hualiang wrote that self-media, until recently such a promising platform, "is an edifice built on sand."

In a statement to Hong Kong-based media group iFeng, a spokesperson for Chinese web giant Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, claimed Tencent took the action "to safeguard the user experience." The statement continued that as a public platform, WeChat "strictly prohibits" what it called "malicious marketing," as well as pornography, violence, and "political rumors." In language redolent of government propaganda, the company averred that it "strikes hard" at such content "as soon as it is discovered." When reached for comment, a Tencent spokesperson stated, "As part of the commitment to providing quality user experience on Weixin in China, we continually review and take measures on suspicious cases of spam, violent, pornographic and illegal content." The spokesperson added, "We also welcome users to report to us online or through our 24-hour hotline."

Although users have rightly complained the deletions came with "absolutely no forewarning," recent domestic media coverage contains what, at least in retrospect, look like omens. On Feb. 23, Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily's website syndicated a story discussing the problem of plagiarism on the WeChat platform. Then on March 10, Sina news portal ran a story bemoaning the proclivity of self-media to spread misinformation, particularly about the Beijing-bound Malaysian airliner that went missing on March 8 with 153 Chinese nationals on board, among others passengers. The article fumed, "apart from still having no information about the flight, what is making families mentally and physically exhausted are the Internet rumors."

Wen said, "It's very possible that this is the first action taken by the small working group on Internet security headed by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping." That group, with a broad portfolio including cybersecurity, Internet culture, and Internet politics, met for the first time on Feb. 27. Wen added that the scale of the crackdown surprised him, making him believe it was done on orders from the Chinese government and was not  a prophylactic action driven by the company. The government "waits for a new medium to gain a certain level of influence and then they crack down," he said.  

In fact, WeChat has never shown itself to be a fan of public accounts, despite the function's popularity. In August 2013, in the name of reducing spam, WeChat collapsed all media accounts into one "subscription folder," meaning that users had to go to a single access point to view them, and limited the number of push notification from such accounts to once a day. Previously, users who subscribed to many public accounts would see notifications of new articles along side by side with updates from friends within their private circles.

Even before this latest move, WeChat has never been free from censorship. Analysis of messages on WeChat has revealed that the platform is closely monitored by censors. From time to time, specific articles are also blocked on WeChat. One self-media account attaches a warning on all its articles that it may later become unviewable because the information it contains is "too fascinating." But a wholesale deletion of public accounts is unheard of. Those enticed by WeChat's latent promise as an outlet for independent media are now wondering whether they had simply enjoyed a false spring.

This article has been updated to reflect a comment from Tencent.

Bethany Allen, Yiqin Fu, and Alexa Olesen contributed reporting.

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Tea Leaf Nation

In Malaysia Airlines Disappearance, Terrorism Fears Fly in China

The country's netizens speculate about the missing plane, while its state media stays muzzled.

Anguish, grief, and frustration have gripped China after the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) en route from Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to the Chinese capital of Beijing. There were 153 Chinese nationals among the 239 passengers and crew on board the plane when it vanished from radar screens in the early hours of March 8. At least two passengers on MH370 traveled on stolen passports, raising the possibility of foul play. Chatter and speculation about the flight have gripped Chinese social media -- as of this article's publication, seven of the 10 most-searched terms on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, relate to the flight -- even as the country's state media remains relatively quiet.

The news of the plane's disappearance has struck a China already on high alert for terrorism. Only a week earlier on March 1, a gruesome knife attack in the train station of provincial capital Kunming in southern Yunnan province left at least 29 dead and more than 140 injured. Chinese authorities have deemed the carnage in Kunming a terrorist attack carried out by separatists from Xinjiang, a region in northwest China heavily populated by Uighur Muslims. On Chinese social media, a particularly anxious place after the Kunming horror, some speculation about the cause of MH370's disappearance has linked it to terrorism or sabotage. On March 10, well-known television host Yang Lan wrote to her 34 million followers on Weibo that "more and more signs are pointing to a terrorist attack." Huang Sheng, a professional investor and author, compared MH370's disappearance to the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 in 1988. Ran Xiongfei, a sports commentator, also wrote, "Everything is unknown, but signs of terrorism are becoming more noticeable."

By contrast, Chinese state-owned media have been very cautious not to draw conclusions about MH370's disappearance. While some state-owned media have translated international reports about possible probes into terrorism, People's Daily and China Central Television (CCTV), two of the Communist Party's flagship media outlets, have not explicitly associated the plane's disappearance with terrorism. Although many readers would likely prefer those outlets to engage the question directly, state media's hands are tied. According to the U.S.-based China Digital Times, China's Central Propaganda Department has issued instructions prohibiting "independent analysis or commentary" of the incident. (The department frequently issues directives instructing Chinese media on what to say, or what not to.)

In response to conflicting demands from readers and the party, some media have resorted to back-channel measures to satisfy both, resulting in an echo chamber in which information seems to come simultaneously from everywhere and nowhere. The current digital front page of People's Daily links to a Weibo post being passed around by other media outlets that purports to "inventory" from other sources some "eight possible reasons" for the disappearance and ask a Chinese aviation expert for his "conjecture" -- the first topic discussed is terrorism. The popular list -- also circulated by state-run news service Xinhua -- allegedly hails from liberal outlet Beijing News, but a search of the latter's website fails to call it up.

Chinese-language reports from outside the country have also quickly found their way into China's eager cyberspace. According to an anonymous pilot interviewed by The Chinese Weekly, a U.K.-based Chinese-language magazine, "terrorism is the most likely explanation" because weather on the flight's route was good and MH370's experienced pilots sent no distress signals. Taiwan's National Security Bureau also reportedly received warnings of potential attacks against Beijing's airport and subway a few days before MH370's disappearance.

There are several possible reasons for Chinese state media's strict approach to this story. First and foremost, no clear facts explaining the plane's disappearance have emerged, and a degree of journalistic restraint from major outlets is laudable. In addition, with Beijing focused on the Two Meetings, the annual session of two of its most important political bodies, it's putting security front and center -- that includes keeping state media on an even tighter leash than usual. Finally, Chinese authorities are almost certainly wary of causing mass panic or worsening ethnic tensions in the wake of the Kunming attack. Beijing is known for a hard stance on what it calls Xinjiang's separatists, but widespread ethnic hatred would not serve its stated objective of social stability. If anything, it would demonstrate that the government's policy of encouraging waves of majority Han Chinese to settle in the Western region, one dominated by Uighurs, a Turkic minority, has not worked.

Frantic efforts by several countries to locate the plane's wreckage in the expansive waters between Vietnam and Malaysia have proven unsuccessful so far. Malaysian police have reportedly identified one of the stolen passport holders. While Inspector General Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar did not share details about the passenger's nationality, he was quoted as claiming that the man is not from Xinjiang. The Financial Times reported on March 10 that the two passengers obtained their tickets through an Iranian contact.* (Some experts have floated the possibility of a sudden attack onboard, but the evidence cited is circumstantial at best and the cause of the disappearance is still under investigation.)

The schism between Chinese mainstream and social media depictions of the flight's fate has caused consternation among some social media users. In a post that was later deleted by censors, one Weibo user fumed, "Vietnam is still searching; Malaysia Airlines is still denying; Chinese navy ships are still on their way." Meanwhile, "The People's Daily is still sensationalizing; CCTV is still reporting on the two meetings; Weibo is still deleting; reporters are still at the Lidu Hotel" in Beijing, where families of the missing Chinese passengers await further word of their whereabouts. China, he concluded, is "still worrying."

*Correction, March 11, 2014: The Financial Times reported on March 10 that two passengers on MH370 obtained their tickets through an Iranian contact. This article originally stated they obtained their false identity documents from an Iranian contact. (Return to reading.)

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