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China's Latest Crackdown on Message Groups Chills WeChat Users

  • Users are deleting chat groups, imposing self-censorship
  • New regulations pose challenge for Tencent to hook users

Self-censorship is kicking in fast on WeChat as China’s new rules on message groups casts a chill among the 963 million users of Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s social network.

Regulations released Sept. 7 made creators of online groups responsible for managing information within their forums and the behavior of members. While they don’t take effect until October, authorities have jumped into action by disciplining 40 people in one group for spreading petition letters while arresting a man who complained about police raids, according to reports in official Chinese media.

The prospect of punishment for the actions of others has led many administrators to disband groups while others circulate self-imposed rules discouraging the spreading of rumors or unauthorized information about Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some are turning to alternatives, such as encrypted messaging apps, to avoid government scrutiny. The regulations are the latest in a series of moves carried out by authorities, as China ramps up for the politically sensitive period of the 19th Communist Party congress.

“WeChat is really the modern printing press, so of course there will be restrictions," said Duncan Clark, chairman of technology consulting firm BDA China Ltd. and a shareholder of Tencent. “If you are an investor in Tencent, you are basically betting on management’s ability to adjust to policies and yet still be able to create a product that people like."

Tencent’s WeChat and QQ, which has 662 million mobile users, evolved from instant messaging to become true social networks by adding news feeds, photo sharing and other services. Anyone can create a group, usually of as many as 500 people, to share pictures, voice chats and links to websites.

Jane Yip, a spokeswoman for Shenzhen-based Tencent, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Weibo Corp., China’s equivalent of Twitter, went through similar tightening a few years ago when users were required to reveal their real identities and opinion leaders were arrested for comments. As smartphones became pervasive, users shifted to then-nascent WeChat, which was under less scrutiny, fueling Tencent’s rise to become a $400 billion-empire today. Weibo has a market value of $23 billion.

Qiao Mu, a former journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University who recently emigrated to the U.S., had four personal WeChat accounts and 16 public ones deleted without his consent.

“Wechat groups scared the party because it’s the simplest way to mobilize and organize a group of people," Qiao said. “The new rule is an upgrade, as they want to hush people and enforce self-censorship. They want to avoid mass incidents and prevent crises before they emerge.”

Whether Tencent can navigate the more stringent policies while keeping users happy remains to be seen. The new rules apply to all internet and mobile forums, meaning there are few alternatives.

While virtual private networks can provide access to blocked messaging services such as Line and Telegram, the country is zeroing in such services. Apple Inc. is removing many VPNs from its Chinese app store to comply with local rules.

“People in China are really between a rock and a hard place,” said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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