As Beijing Renews WeChat Crackdown, SCIO Reports ‘Expanded’ Free Speech

The social media landscape has been a primary battleground in Beijing’s ongoing and intensifying campaign to tighten control over online public opinion. In March, the social media crackdown spread to Tencent’s messaging service WeChat, which saw dozens of popular accounts deleted or suspended. Reuters reports on a renewal of Beijing’s WeChat operation as state media announces a new month-long crackdown on the popular messaging app:

WeChat, whose Chinese name means “micromessage”, has quickly become a news source for savvy mobile users in China, where most traditional news sources are heavily censored.

“Some people are using this platform to disseminate negative or illegal harmful information to the public, seriously damaging the internet system and hurting public interest, causing dissatisfaction among internet users,” an unnamed person responsible for the campaign told the state-owned China News Service.

The crackdown would particularly focus on accounts sending information with the ability to “communicate (widely) and mobilize society”, the report said. Accounts spreading rumors and ideas on violence, terrorism, cheating and sex would be targeted.

[…] Authorities would also seek to weed out domestic and foreign forces seeking to infiltrate and sabotage China, China News Service added. [Source]

This comes ahead of the 25th anniversary of the June 4th, 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen protesters and as security is tightening nationwide following several violent attacks attributed to Xinjiang separatists. The Wall Street Journal situates the renewed WeChat crackdown into this atmosphere of political sensitivity, and notes that WeChat competitors will also be targeted:

The clampdown on messaging apps comes just before next week’s politically touchy 25th anniversary of the military’s quelling of the Tiananmen Square protests. It also comes as the government grapples with an uptick in bombings and violent attacks it says are instigated by separatists from China’s western region of Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s government news website reported Monday that suspects nabbed in recent antiterror sweeps included people who allegedly kept up with training and indoctrination via text messages and WeChat, among other social media. [Source]

The ongoing crackdown on social media, which has notably stifled the once lively social environment on Sina’s Weibo microblogging service, is part of a wider campaign to bolster Beijing’s “Internet management” capabilities. As the ability to express oneself online in China becomes increasingly limited by central authorities, the State Council Information Office recently released the “Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2013” report, which claims that the Internet has “dramatically expanded the space of freedom of speech” in China. From Xinhua:

Chinese netizens post and forward 250 million microblog messages and over 20 billion WeChat and other instant messages every day, said the report on China’ s human rights in 2013, issued by the State Council Information Office.

Internet has become one of the most important channels for the public to express its opinion, the report said.

“Chinese people enjoy extensive freedom of speech,” the report said. “Within the range allowed by the Constitution and other laws, the public can discuss political issues freely.”

The public can express opinions through Internet forums, blogs, personal webpages, social networks, online literature, online videos and other Internet platforms, according to the report.

[…] Chinese netizens discussed a wide range of topics, including lawsuits, people’s livelihood, individual rights and interests protection, doctor-patient disputes, and corruption, the report said. [Source]