Yaqiu Wang is a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
In September 2016, during the U.S. presidential campaign, I saw a post on WeChat — a Chinese social media platform combined with a messaging app — that took me aback. An acquaintance from China had shared a link to a Chinese website, explaining that this was where he planned to watch the live-streamed debate between Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. My acquaintance went to graduate school in the United States and at the time was living in New York City. Yet, instead of turning on a television or logging onto YouTube, he planned to watch the debate on the Chinese Internet, a cyberspace subjected to stringent government censorship.
Why? Because that was where he obtained information about everything, including the country he immigrated to. He’s certainly not alone.
WeChat, owned by the Chinese company Tencent, has about 1 billion active monthly users worldwide and about 100 million registered users outside China. Overseas Chinese use the app to read news, share information, and communicate with one another and users in China. A survey of Mandarin-speakers in Australia found that 60 percent of those polled identified WeChat as their primary source of news and information, and only 22 percent said they regularly access news from mainstream Australian media such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Sydney Morning Herald.
For many overseas Chinese, the popularity and multifunctionality of WeChat have made apps popular outside of China unnecessary. But what are the implications of the Chinese diaspora’s heavy reliance on WeChat for information and communication?
The Chinese government and Tencent censor WeChat so that users often get skewed information. On WeChat, posts containing “sensitive words” — such as Tiananmen Massacre, Liu Xiaobo and Occupy Central — can’t be posted. Posted content critical of the Chinese government is routinely removed, sometimes within seconds.
A study on news consumption of the Chinese diaspora in Australia found that there is a marked difference between news published on WeChat accounts catering to Chinese immigrants and by the Mandarin service of the Australian government-funded Special Broadcasting Service. Though there is a lot of political news on SBS, political coverage on WeChat channels is nearly absent and its few articles on Chinese politics are similar to news reports published by Chinese domestic news agencies, which typically reflect the position of the Chinese government.
This helps explain why many overseas Chinese share the Chinese government’s views about human rights issues while living in countries where access to critical, contrary information is easily available. In effect, the Chinese government is still able to control a significant portion of the information overseas Chinese receive — even outside its borders.
Despite these issues, many political parties and politicians in countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States have opened WeChat accounts to reach out to their Chinese immigrant constituencies. For example, the use of WeChat was critical in Lily Qi (D)’s successful campaign to win a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates last year.
But the Chinese government — through censorship on WeChat — has interfered with communication between elected officials and constituents in Western democracies. In September 2017, Jenny Kwan, a member of the Canadian parliament, made a statement regarding the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in which she praised the young protesters who “stood up and fought for what they believe in, and for the betterment of their society.”
The statement or anything related is now nowhere to be seen on WeChat.
Kwan in a December email to me said, “We posted the statement on Sept 6, 2017. One hundred people viewed it, 1 liked and 3 comments were posted before it was deleted by the WeChat management. We only noticed that it was taken down since you asked the question.”
In this case, the Chinese government quietly and effortlessly prevented a foreign elected official from being heard by her own constituents in their own country. Imagine the consequences if the Chinese government decided to disrupt these conversations on a broader scale.
The Chinese government’s use of WeChat as a surveillance tool is also well-documented. Authorities have detained Chinese citizens for what they say in private conversations on WeChat and even admitted that they are able to collect deleted WeChat messages. Given this reality, will politicians talk via WeChat to constituents about what human rights issues they might raise when traveling to China? Would constituents reach out to their elected officials through this medium to discuss issues critical of China? Probably not.
Though it’s encouraging to see more political parties and politicians in democracies reach out to the Chinese diaspora through a medium with which that community is comfortable, they should recognize its serious shortcomings. WeChat is not just another social media tool to reach a specific demographic. It is a platform that can be manipulated by a foreign government — one that is known for its human rights violations — to suit its needs. Politicians should redouble efforts to reach overseas Chinese on their own terms through channels that are not controlled by Chinese authorities — or risk unintentionally becoming caught up in China’s censorship machine.