Now China’s WeChat App is Censoring Its Users Globally

Steven Millward
10:40 pm on Jan 10, 2013

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):

WeChat censorship

Click to enlarge.

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.

(Hat-tip to @Weigu on Twitter for spotting this; UPDATE: See another example and screenshot from this Twitter user)

  • whatevr

    This is just the start and the reason one should be very cautious installing/using “Made in China” software. What do you think the plan is with Baidu Security software/Qihoo security packages.

    What’s better than bring the Chinese firewall to someone’s operating system.

  • pureshit

    actually, i can still send it. so yeah, you just made a fuss about something does not happen.
    just check it again.

    • Steven Millward

      @pureshit! it’s not always going to trigger for everyone, but there’s other evidence on Twitter of this happening, and it has been tested both in and out of China by us.

  • Andy

    Sending it from Spain, it works without problem

  • Andy

    And my friend in china replied with it, I can send u the screenshot, he’s not USING ANY vpn…

    It seems it doesn’t happen to everyone.

    From Spain to China, it works, and from China to Spain, it works.

  • gregorylent

    the comments suggest the story is not true? or it’s random? what would explain the randomness, lack of computer filter capacity?

    this should be followed up … test it with what you know is blocked, fg, and report on it again.

    • Steven Millward

      @gregorylent et al – Let’s check we’re all on the same page: This is just about keyword filtering/blocking (as shown in the screenshot) and _not_ about the whole chat service being blocked or GFW’d or anything. so this is not about proxies, it’s simply regarding typing the prohibited word in Chinese. Of course, it’s still conceivable the word might go through in some cases.

  • cofi

    just tried usa to china, it works, no block

  • ss

    it started from former PM Wen. you couldn’t send screen shot.

  • Ander

    Used those characters just now within China – wasn’t blocked.
    Will let you know if ever anything gets blocked~

  • Chinauser

    Just tested within China, Chinese and English versions of Weixin/Wechat. The message was sent, but it took more than an hour until the other device received it. Also tried 放开西藏, which also took a bit longer than usual, but wasn’t blocked.

  • FadFooFee

    Sometimes man you jsut gotta roll with it dude.

  • Glenn

    Tested in Ontario, CAN.

    Went through beautifully.

  • Glenn

    So… I’ve tested among 20 or so friends living in various parts of China.
    It all works, every time.

    Weixin, WeChat, Weibo, Weibo… it all works. Are you sure about this? And perhaps it was just a “test” and they rolled it back now?

  • Ranjan

    Appears to be working from the US to US….crazy though if the government is pursuing this outside of China

  • Kai

    what a liar, lol. Now we know what “evidence” means

  • 秋雨 (@SanNuvola)

    cool story bro

  • jeremy

    Seeing the amount of comments that states those keywords were not blocked for other user… it may suggest that only “some” accounts are under surveillance by the chinese censor. Did one of those account on the screenshot had any political engagement in the past? Filtering 300 millions users could be done automaticly but would still have an impact on the network capacity and performance. I’d say chinese authority might be well aware of who they need to monitor…

  • lol

    so… yah apple is doing the same shit.

    Now America is becoming China or it is actually China is becoming America.

  • Jeff

    Censorship software isn’t always enforced for everyone, and this is especially true in China. Usually they test it in one region, and the rest are updated later. So just because you can use it doesn’t mean it’s not being blocked somewhere else.

  • Hongkongese

    If it doesn’t filter the words, Then I’m sure it will collect / monitor the user’s information

    Freedom of Speech in China is Impossible

  • S

    just tested. from singapore to singapore. not blocked

    • Steven Millward

      @S – yes, it seems to have lasted for one day, or just under two days, and is now no longer occurring. see the updated statement.

  • Reality Check

    From a PR perspective, you never issue an explanation like the one given by Tencent unless it’s an admission of guilt. It was lame to label this a glitch. If you’re upset with anyone, you should be upset with Tencent for their lack of truthfulness.

  • melinda

    two months ago I could instal Adobe Reader on my system here in China. Mozilla Firefox and other basic software could be still installed without a fuss in ENGLISH! I do not speak Chinese and for certain applications, it is better to use the English version of the software anyway. Now if I try to install Adobe Reader they block me or send me to Chinese version. The same with Mozilla and so on. On devices purchased in China I can’t have the Google Playstore which is crazy and frankly stupid. I cannot download any app unless I go to Samsung App Store or whatever and the downloaded version will be Chinese by default, if I chose English, they block the installation. Most English content websites works very slow or is blocked. In order to see a picture of a puppy on a leash you need to use VPN! They should just call it intranet and get over with this bullshit, at least we know how we stand.

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