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The Faustian bargain of WeChat: China shackles the world

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WeChat, the popular social media app owned by China’s tech giant Tencent, has registered more than 1.1 billion global users, including from the United States. But this app has become a cybersecurity risk to its users — there is growing evidence that it is a tool of oppression, the eyes, ears and fists of the communist regime.    

Because China bans foreign social media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Line, its WeChat has skyrocketed at a pace of more than 100 million users a year since its start in 2011. WeChat boasts a strong presence in southeast Asia and has expanded into Europe. In the United States, most of the 4 million Chinese diaspora have WeChat accounts. 

The information transmitted via the app is massive. The daily average number of messages sent exceeds 38 billion, and over 14 million companies are actively present on the app. WeChat’s popularity is largely because of its convenience; you can do almost everything with the app, from buying a stock to chatting with friends and family. 

But convenience comes at a Faustian cost. All the information on the platform is monitored, collected, stored, analyzed, censored and accessed by Chinese authorities. WeChat is different from U.S. companies such as Facebook, for example, because they do not send their data to the government. Overseas data, such as that collected from users in India and Taiwan, also is routed to Tencent servers in China.

WeChat has a resident internet police bureau dispatched by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which polices the platform 24/7 to enforce Chinese law. The regime has free access to users’ personal information. Having WeChat in your phone is much like wearing an electronic ankle bracelet: it monitors all your online activities and collects metadata that can reveal your nearly everything about you. Unlike Facebook or Fitbit, WeChat collects far more extensive metadata because the app covers almost all aspects of daily life, to which the government has access. Essentially, the social media platform is a tool to implement the regime’s censorship and surveillance.  

WeChat follows Beijing’s instruction to suppress free speech by automatically blocking political content on the platform that the regime deems “sensitive,” including major news stories such as the U.S.-China trade war, Hong Kong’s ongoing protests, and significant public health scandals. WeChat overseas users also are censored. Additionally, their WeChat accounts have been suspended and their groups banned. WeChat’s censorship constitutes an extreme violation of the right to freedom of expression. 

But the violations do not end with censorship. We have seen more and more WeChat private messages used as evidence to send people to jail in recent years. For example, Huang Shike, a Muslim in Xinjiang, explained to his relatives and friends how to worship and his WeChat voice messages were used to convict him; he was sentenced to two years in prison in 2017. Another activist, Zhang Haitao, in Xinjiang was sentenced to 19 years for using WeChat to post comments to “defame” the Chinese Communist Party. 

There are credible reports that China’s espionage agencies use WeChat to collect intel, monitor overseas oppositions and recruit potential spies. For example, Beijing developed sophisticated xRAT spyware that is tied with WeChat and QQ for use against Hong Kong protesters. The WeChat app has been used as a back door to hijack a user’s phone without being detected.  

Tencent participates in China’s mass surveillance network. Its research and development is oriented toward advancing facial recognition technology and other AI surveillance solutions. Early this year, Li Muqing, Tencent’s chief for “security defense,” a euphemism for surveillance in China, bragged about the company’s capability for surveillance, which includes gathering facial recognition surveillance to share with the police.

The danger of WeChat is great enough, but it is only one element of China’s plan to exert control. The greater peril is combining the app with Huawei’s global 5G network and cheap smartphones, ZTE’s telecommunication infrastructures, TikTok’s increasing global popularity, and other Chinese tech innovations. Terribly brilliant in its audacity, seemingly irresistible because of its ubiquity, ease of use and low price, China’s social media/communications network was forged to fetter the world’s population and advance the interests of the communist regime.  

To avoid imprisonment in China’s digital shackles, the free world must join together to prevent it. Our political leaders must:

  • Initiate an investigation into WeChat’s role in China’s global censorship and surveillance;
  • Prohibit U.S. government personnel from installing and using WeChat;
  • Urge American companies to deshelf the app from Apple and Google and other online stores; and
  • Consider visa sanctions against WeChat, Tencent and their employees responsible for human rights violations.

Additionally, the U.S. should increase scrutiny by allowing the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to review all of Tencent’s investments in the U.S., including the IPOs of its spinoff companies or companies in which it holds substantial interests, and consider placing WeChat and Tencent on the Commerce Department’s Entity List.

Bradley A. Thayer is a professor of political science at the University of Texas-San Antonio and co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.” 

Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.

Tags China Chinese Communist Party Messaging apps Social networking services Tencent WeChat

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