WeChat, Tencent’s smartphone messaging application, could someday eclipse Weibo in popularity. Unlike Weibo, WeChat messages are private; groups are by invitation only. With this built-in sense of privacy, as well as availability in multiple languages, WeChat is now the world’s fifth most used smartphone app.
But WeChat is not as private as it seems. Last December, human rights activist Hu Jia reported that Domestic Security Department officials quoted “verbatim” WeChat voicemails he had sent to friends. WeChat can also block messages containing certain keywords, as it likely did this January during protests at the Southern Weekly newspaper. WeChat claimed messages with the words “Southern Weekly” or its Chinese counterpart (南方周末) were unable to be sent due to a “technical glitch.”
Weibo user Cao Shanshi (@曹山石) has shared a screenshot of a WeChat conversation he had with a journalist earlier this month. The unnamed journalist claims the police questioned him after he posted to a WeChat group about a protest:
曹山石: A certain journalist from a major national financial and economic newspaper has undergone questioning by the police. The police can clearly tell who was the first to bring up a certain topic on WeChat, and have been phoning him/her directly.
I just received a call from the police asking about the China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China protest whose time and place I shared to this [WeChat] group the other day. Had I instigated the protest?
“Geez,” I said. “This group is for journalists. I was just sharing information with my colleagues to go investigate.”
They went ahead and checked my identity to confirm that I was a journalist.
The police said that I was the first to post the time and place to this group, which is why they called me.