Canada Censored by a Chinese tech giant? Canadians using WeChat app say they're being restricted

15:10  04 december  2019
15:10  04 december  2019 Source:   nationalpost.com

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a close up of electronics: Tencent Holdings Ltd. apps include WeChat, a means by which immigrant populations can communicate online with friends and family in China.© Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg Tencent Holdings Ltd. apps include WeChat, a means by which immigrant populations can communicate online with friends and family in China.

As publisher of one of Canada’s few Chinese-language newspapers that dares to cover Beijing critically, Jack Jia feels he has a duty to give his readers balanced, skeptical reporting.

To that end, he tries to spread the reach of Chinese News by posting its articles on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese communications app used extensively by the diaspora here.

But that practice hit a sudden obstacle last month, when WeChat began restricting his use of the site, blocking access to his account and delivering an ominous message. Jia had been reported for “multiple instances of non-compliance,” it said.

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Chinese users are censored wherever they are in the world, and regardless of who they are talking to. All Chinese social networking apps censor and restrict content by law. " Censorship on WeChat (now resembles) how the Great Firewall of China operates, which is by design opaque and

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He has been blocked three more times in recent weeks — the latest incident this past Sunday — but that was not all.

For six months, messages Jia posts in group chats have been invisible to users in China. And articles and other posts he puts on his WeChat Moments page, similar to a Facebook timeline, have been inaccessible even to people in Canada and the United States, he says.

WeChat’s censorship in China itself — a private-sector brick in the Great Firewall around the internet there — has been well-documented , but the publisher says he was stunned to find the app is now extending its tight control over content to this country, too.

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His experience is not unique. Three other Chinese Canadians told the National Post of facing similar restrictions from WeChat, though none were told exactly why. An American activist began a White House petition calling for government help to counter the technology giant’s controls.

“I want to stop WeChat from brainwashing us,” said Jia. “I learned from Canadians, if you don’t like something, change it. It’s time for our lawmakers to change the law, so we can counter propaganda.”

WeChat did not respond to a request for comment.

Owned by Chinese online behemoth Tencent, the site has slowly come to dominate the internet in China. With over one billion monthly active users, it not only is the go-to messaging and social-media app, but also includes a popular digital payment function and “mini programs” — apps within the app offering online shopping, games and more.

It has become essential, too, in Canada and other countries with large mainland-immigrant populations, one of the only ways to communicate online with friends and relatives in China, where Western messaging and social-media apps are banned.

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Tencent is sinking roots here in other ways, as well. It opened a cloud-computing data centre in Barrie, Ont., in 2013, housing it in a building used for security during a G20 meeting, according to one report.

Evidence indicates the Chinese government routinely snoops on WeChat conversations, while the company itself uses various methods to crack down on posting of text or images considered politically unacceptable.

A 2016 report by CitizenLab, the University of Toronto’s respected internet watchdog, concluded that keyword filters and other forms of censorship existed for users with Chinese cell phone numbers, but generally not those with international phone numbers.

That seems to be changing.

a group of people looking at a cellphone:  WeChat has slowly come to dominate the internet in China. with more than one billion monthly active users.© AFP via Getty Images WeChat has slowly come to dominate the internet in China. with more than one billion monthly active users.

Yun Wang, a retired Toronto resident, said he set up a WeChat group — called Say what you want to say — for people to air frank opinions about China. The group itself, as well as Wang’s own account, have been shut down several times, he says. The most recent was Nov. 7 and he is still locked out.

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“I live in a country of freedom, but I cannot speak freely on WeChat,” he said by text. “I strongly ask our government, if WeChat company cannot let us speak freely, drive it out of Canada.”

Jian Wu, a Toronto home-renovation contractor, said his WeChat account was abruptly frozen on Oct. 20, and he couldn’t get back into it for another month.

He doesn’t know for sure why, but suspects it relates to his posts critical of a prominent local community leader considered closely allied with the Chinese government. Wu is also being sued for libel by the same person.

“I was anxious and very upset,” he said. “I used to use WeChat to defend why I stand up to this community leader. After the account was blocked, I couldn’t do anything.”

A Toronto teacher said she and other members of her university-alumni WeChat group — most of them living in North America — were all slapped with arbitrary restrictions in July after an unusual conversation.

When an anonymous participant made comments that mirrored Chinese Communist Party “propaganda” about the Hong Kong protests, they didn’t argue with the person but demanded he reveal his identity, she said.

Since then her posts — and those of the others — have been blocked in groups of three or more people in China, meaning she can not even take part in chats with her two sisters there.

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“It’s not right,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because of fear of retribution.

George Shen, an IBM executive in Boston who emigrated from China 26 years ago and is outspoken in criticizing it, said he first started hearing about a year ago of people in his country and Canada having accounts censored by WeChat.

He had his own blocked temporarily this June, around the time of the 30 th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a strictly taboo topic in China.

Separate accounts of his were frozen after he posted photos related to Liu Xiaobo, the late Chinese human-rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Photos he put up simply showing Hong Kong residents at a candlelight vigil, without indicating they were commemorating Tiananmen Square, were deleted by WeChat, Shen said.

His posts remain invisible in group chats in China, though they still can be seen by North American users.

“WeChat censorship, it’s rampant,” Shen said. “Tencent is just banning people at will.”

Jia said he managed to eventually access his own account each time it was shut down, using a convoluted unlocking process. But he remains disturbed that a key tool for spreading impartial journalism about China is being undermined by a firm based half-way around the world.

“I want my fellow Chinese to reach their full potential,” he said. “To reach your full potential, you have to be well informed.”

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