Facebook's WhatsApp blocked in China amid censorship push ahead of 19th Party Congress

The disruption of WhatsApp is the latest in a long line of big digital services running up against China’s “Great Firewall”, the country’s system of Internet filters and controls.
The disruption of WhatsApp is the latest in a long line of big digital services running up against China’s “Great Firewall”, the country’s system of Internet filters and controls.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG) - Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service has been partially blocked in China, following a censorship crackdown by the government.

Multiple WhatsApp users in China reported experiencing intermittent outages from Monday night Beijing time. By Tuesday morning (July 18), users had taken to social networks such as Twitter to report that photos as well as audio clips - a favoured format in the country - were not being delivered.

WhatsApp is not responsible for the blockage, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company declined to comment.

"The Chinese authorities want to be able to monitor all communication on the internet," said Mr Charlie Smith, a co-founder of GreatFire.org, which tracks blockages.

"By blocking WhatsApp, they limit the choices that Chinese have to send private and encrypted communications and force more and more users to adopt WeChat as their messaging app."

 

While WhatsApp messages are encrypted, WeChat is unencrypted and highly censored, Mr Smith said. On WeChat, a hugely popular messaging app run by China's Tencent Holdings, people are asked to use their real names.

"This is part of the censorship master plan," Mr Smith said.

The disruption of WhatsApp was the latest in a long line of big digital services running up against China’s “Great Firewall”, the country’s system of Internet filters and controls.

In recent weeks, the government has appeared to increase its grip, an online crackdown fed by a perfect storm of politically sensitive news, important events and a new cyber-security law that went into effect last month.

Sites hosting popular foreign television shows have had videos taken down, and tools used to skirt the censors have faced more frequent disruptions. In an article, the mouthpiece of the country’s Communist Party scolded Chinese Internet company Tencent over a popular video game, calling it too addictive.  The news environment has intensified the government’s online scrutiny.

In recent weeks, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo died in detention. A Chinese billionaire in the United States accused senior leaders of graft, using his platform on Twitter. And Hong Kong commemorated the 20th anniversary of its handover to China.

To complicate matters, the 19th Party Congress – where top leadership positions are determined – is just months away. The government puts an increased emphasis on stability in the run-up to the event, which happens every five years, often leading to a tightening of internet controls.

The recent death of Dr Liu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, drew criticism from around the globe and silence at home because search terms and public discussion relating to the pro-democracy activist were heavily censored. Research from the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab found that even photos relating to Dr Liu were being deleted from messages sent via WeChat.

Dr Liu's death is a sensitive event for the Chinese Communist Party, due in part to his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, according to Mr Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab. That uprising grew out of the mourning of the death of Mr Hu Yaobang, another person advocating for greater government transparency and reform in the country, he said.

"Concerned that martyrdom around Liu may spur similar collective action, as well as being concerned about saving face, the knee-jerk reaction of China's authorities is to quash all public discussion of Liu, which in today's world translates into censorship on social media," Mr Deibert wrote in a blog post on Monday.