Beating Big Brother in China With WhatsApp

Big brother is always watching in China.

In an interview with Sky News about Internet censorship, Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming said, “We manage the media according to the law. The important thing is that the media, whether it’s foreign or Chinese, they have to fall in the law of China and they have to serve the interests of the people.”

Internet Censorship in China

China’s history of internet censorship is a common occurrence during political unrest within the country. Chinese citizens are hired to monitor the internet and delete or block any content that negatively associates the Communist Party or top officials of the government. Xiaoming and government leaders are notorious for shutting down websites and reprimanding any citizen that displays public opinion in a manner that doesn’t align with government views. Remember these three events in the past six years?

  • 2008 – Shortly after the riots in Tibet and around the time leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese government officials sentenced and jailed an activist on AIDS named Hu Jia for three and a half years. Jia was writing articles on Boxun.com, a U.S.-based Chinese language website, about civil rights issues within the country.

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  • 2009 – After 140 people were slain in Uighur Riots in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province, Facebook and Twitter were banned. Two weeks earlier, Google services such as Gmail and Google Talk were also disabled.
  • 2011 – Chinese officials acted ahead of time and disabled Twitter (again) before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Although the Communist Party goes through great efforts to shelter the Chinese people of issues within the country, there are civil rights advocates worldwide making sure they are informed. “Hacktivists,” groups of software and technology engineers, are hard at work building software and other internet tools for people in China and other internet censored countries to access banned sites. Despite its service being blocked within the country, Facebook is trying to enter the market of 600 million Chinese web surfers through a different social tool in the country.

What is WhatsApp

Purchased by Facebook in February for $19 billion, WhatsApp is a “cross-platform mobile messaging app” that sends messages over mobile broadband through data plans. Over 450 million users worldwide have downloaded the service and millions continue to do so each day. Facebook’s Messenger service for mobile devices was second to WhatsApp in number of users within the first four years of launch of the company.

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(Photo courtesy of Mashable)

WhatsApp is free to download, has no charge of usage for up to a year and eliminates the problem of international texting fees. Users have the capabilities to create groups, send multimedia messages and share news and events with each other. Forbes contributor Doug Young, a former Chinese company news chief for Reuters and financial journalism instructor at Fudan University in Shanghai, believes if WhatsApp can “steer clear of other politics, it might be able to find a limited but lucrative audience of Chinese white collar workers attracted by the app’s more international image and exposure.”

Competition in Mobile Messaging Market

WhatsApp will have to put up a fight against Hong Kong based Tencent’s similar WeChat service. It is now China’s second most popular instant messaging tool and is also free to download. Brands are particularly excited to be able to connect with users through the instant messaging services without being blocked on traditional Chinese websites. For example, condom maker Durex has sent messages to WeChat users asking them to share their “love stories” as part of a campaign strategy. Having a like competitor isn’t all that bad in the market, however. Since WhatsApp’s acquisition by Facebook, WeChat’s shares have risen 9.4%, giving it a market capitalization of $150 billion.

What do these two apps mean for people in living in controlled, media censored countries like China? Because WhatsApp is not based out of China, it is less likely to be monitored for content the Communist Party would deem “insensitive.” Young also reported in a self-monitored poll that his non-Chinese friends living in China are reluctant to use WeChat because they fear their conversations may be monitored.

Perhaps the main benefactor of both of these mobile apps and others floating in the saturated mobile messaging market will offer open conversation, without hesitation, to the Chinese people.  Whether that be for citizens within the country or with family members across different pockets of the world, Chinese citizens will have the ability to communicate their opinions and thoughts of their government without fear of jail time or worse.

What are your thoughts on Facebook trying to enter the Chinese market through WhatsApp? Could WhatsApp or WeChat be the solutions for citizens to communicate in media censored governments? Will these tech startups help to break the barrier of global disconnectedness that China has? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below!