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China Puts Squeeze on WeChat and Other Messaging Apps

China is launching a new month-long crackdown on popular instant messaging platforms including Tencent's WeChat messaging application in the latest campaign targeting social media companies.

The move comes in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests on June 4.

According to the state media, three government agencies will conduct a month-long “special operation” to monitor WeChat and other platforms. Authorities are asking for tipsters to call or email them. WeChat public accounts will be targeted.

Since 2013, WeChat has replaced Weibo as a news source for savvy mobile users in China. Unlike Weibo, WeChat has more than twice as many monthly active users – 396 million – than Sina Weibo's 143.8 million, but most WeChat users send their messages privately rather than sharing them publicly.

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Since 2013, WeChat has replaced Weibo as a news source for savvy mobile users in China.(Photo from Weibo)

WeChat also has 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. This has also given rise to “self-media,” a place where organizations build their brand names and share information. 

China Daily quoted a statement from the State Internet Information Office:

Some people have used them to distribute illegal and harmful information, seriously undermining public interest and order in cyberspace. The campaign will target public accounts on instant messaging services, which can spread information on a large scale and mobilize followers. We will firmly fight against infiltration from hostile forces at home and abroad.

The WeChat crackdown doesn't come as a surprise to most. 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. In March 2014, authorities shut off dozens of popular public accounts sending out political articles and information.

Bill Bishop, author of Sinocism newsletter, commented on Twitter: 

Weibo user “Gong Wenxiang” wrote:

前几天cctv说微信色情的事情,其实是当局要开始整治微信的信号:当局 最喜欢以打击低俗之名行钳制舆论之实。

A few days ago, CCTV was talking about WeChat porn, it’s actually a signal to crack down on WeChat, the authorities like to curb online voices by using the term “porn crackdown”.

Another user “Yidong Hulianwang app” worried that WeChat will face the same fate as Weibo where vibrant discussions have gone silent due to the chilling crackdown on so-called Big V users, or online celebrities, since August 2013:

网络彻底断网才是利益集团最希望看得到的!微博的今天,就是微信的明天

The whole Internet cutoff is what the authorizes hope to see. Today’s Weibo is tomorrow’s WeChat.

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