We’ve written a lot about the progress of the world’s biggest messaging app, the China-made WeChat, which is fast approaching 300 million registered users and enjoying some level of global success with it. But the the app – made by Tencent (HKG:0700), China’s biggest web company – is now risking all that by apparently being forced by Chinese authorities to censor certain ‘sensitive’ words. [UPDATED 25 hours later: Tencent says this is no longer occurring and has given us a statement].
Right now, the Chinese name of the outspoken magazine caught up in a tense struggle of wills with the government – Southern Weekend in English, 南方周末 (nan fang zhou mo) in Chinese – is censored in Chinese on WeChat. But it’s not just restricted to users in China (where the app is called Weixin), and typing that name in the Chinese language is now blocked globally. The restriction notice says (pictured):
The message “南方周末” you sent contains restricted words. Please check it again.
We’ve tested it out going from users in China to Thailand (blocked), Thailand to China (blocked), and even Thailand to Singapore (blocked); the prohibited words are not sent at all. The name of the magazine can be sent in English.
While some long-standing bugbears of Beijing – like the name of a certain cult group – are already blocked on WeChat, this is the first major case of topical censorship seen on WeChat that we know of. It might seriously affect the app in overseas markets if users feel unease over these kinds of restrictions – even if it apparently doesn’t affect English words or phrases.
All media outlets in mainland China are required to operate a form of self-censorship to keep themselves in line with what authorities don’t want being discussed. This is often highly visible on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like social site, where ‘sensitive’ words or phrases are blocked on a very regular bases.
It’s shit like this that caused us to declare 2013 as the worst year ever for tech in China.