In a move to smother free speech on the mobile messaging service, WeChat has shut down some of the accounts for their sensitive writings on key issues pertaining to politics and economics. The popular messaging app is not the first one to receive this crackdown, but it is definitely emblematic of the intent of the Chinese government for censorship of Internet.
Those terminated/closed accounts having tens of thousands of followers were either associated with publications such as NetEase or well-known local scholars such as Xu Danei. With this clamp down, there will be an immediate impact on the use of the mobile messaging service for any of the activities that unsettle the Chinese government.
From Thursday, users began to see the suspension of accounts. Those who tried to access the account received a message stating that the accounts in question violated WeChat policies.
In November, China has categorically expressed the will to exercise greater control over social networking sites including WeChat. Right after two weeks of creation of an Internet security group spearheaded by President Xi Jinping, this crackdown is its first move.
Even Sina Weibo, another leading social networking site met with a similar fate earlier. Two years of crackdown led to deleting of accounts and imprisonment of users for spreading alleged rumors and false information on Sina Weibo. A panic-stricken Chinese government did not think twice to muzzle free speech in this case, either. It all too logically explains the fate of WeChat.
What distinguished WeChat from Sina Weibo is that it is used for communication in small and limited circle of friends. It curtails the crowd of chat room to 40, and other similar features allow only limited dissemination of ideas. It is one of the reasons why it remained unscathed so far, if not completely out of the radar of Chinese government.
In oppressive environment of China, social media came as the glimmer of hope. It provided the weapon to the scholars, journalists, activists and lawyers who otherwise had no way out. In a country where ruling party seems to have control over newspapers and broadcasters, social media came all too handy. But oppressive regime found its way to clamp down on this newly found freedom and WeChat is the latest victim.
WeChat has got more than 100 million users outside China, but this move of acute and excessive censorship will affect its prospects of expansion in the US, Europe and Africa.
Amid the acutely growing competition among apps of the same feather, this fate of WeChat augurs well for Line, Viber and WhatsApp. They will be keenly watching as things transpire further in the censorship-heavy environs of China. WeChat is yet another testimony of the Chinese intolerance of freedom of expression.