China is targeting popular smartphone-based instant messaging services in a month-long campaign to crack down on the spreading of rumors and what it calls “hostile forces at home and abroad.” The most worrisome elements for the government are intellectuals, journalists and others who comment and critique on politics, law and socio-economic conditions. The onslaught will affect hundreds of thousands of users. It is just the latest move by Beijing to restrict online freedom of expression. Past clamp downs have citizens flocking to alternative go-arounds to circumvent government initiatives. The VPN industry has been a major beneficiary of government actions as citizens attempt to skirt The Great Firewall.
The official Xinhua News Agency claims the crackdown is aimed at people spreading rumours and information related to violence, terrorism and pornography. ’Some people have used (WeChat among them) to distribute illegal and harmful information, seriously undermining public interests and order in cyberspace. We will firmly fight against infiltration from hostile forces at home and abroad,” Xinhua said. A new legal interpretation allows the government to jail microbloggers who post objectionable information, i.e. any information it deems to be false if it it has been repeated 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.
It was just in this year that the ruling Communist party created an internet security group led by the president himself, Xi Jinping. China watchers say that the authorities are wary of millions of Chinese with internet access getting ideas that might threaten the Communist party’s tight control of information. It is believed to be China’s first major program targeting mobile phone messaging. Unfortunately it is not the governments first try at censorship.
The timing this time is noteworthy. There have been deadly attacks recently in China’s western region of Xinjiang. And then there’s the continuing government campaign against corruption. It may even be in response to the US indictment of five Chinese military officers for cyberspying according to sources familiar with the situation. ’Anytime we see a tenser environment on fronts like those, there tends to be a corresponding clampdown on various communication tools,” said Mark Natkin, m.d. of a Beijiing based internet and mobile research company, Marbridge Consulting.
Tencent Holdings, the parent company of WeChat, could not be reached for comment or reaction but it is known that We Chat removed at least 40 accounts in March which contained content relating to politics, economics and legal issues such as human rights abuses.
This is not the first time China has been guilty of restricting privacy. It will be interesting to see how savvy tech users choose to circumvent this latest government effort at suppression.