(TibetanReview.net, Sep10’22) – Chinese social media platform WeChat has warned users outside China that their data will be stored on servers inside the country, rendering them open to snooping and reprisal by the Chinese government. Many overseas Chinese as well as Tibetans with friends and families in occupied Tibet rely on WeChat to maintain their contact.
WeChat, one of the most popular apps used by exile Tibetans, has remained banned in India since Nov 2020. But it is still used by thousands of Tibetans living in other countries.
A number of overseas WeChat users received a notification on Sep 6, warning that “personal data [including] likes, comments, browsing and search history, content uploads, etc.” will be transmitted to China, reported the Cantonese Service of rfa.org Sep 8.
Following mounting international concern over privacy protection, WeChat said in Sep 2021 that it had “separated” its data storage facilities for domestic and international users, and asked overseas users to re-sign the terms and conditions to keep using the app, which many people rely on to send money to people in China, make purchases in Chinese yuan, and stay in touch with friends and family.
But former Sina Weibo censor Liu Lipeng has said the move was largely a cosmetic one.
“Last year … WeChat re-signed its agreements with all overseas users, but everything on there except for one-to-one chats have to use WeChat protocols,” Liu has said. “So the moment you click OK, you are back in [the version used in China] again.”
This means that “everything you write is still available [to the Chinese authorities], so it’s basically sleight of hand. Nothing has changed,” he has said. “You are a still a WeChat user.”
In any case, US-based legal scholar Teng Biao has noted that WeChat’s parent company Tencent is already required under China’s Cybersecurity Law to assist the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with any data the latter says it needs, as are all of the other internet service providers and social media platforms in China.
“The Chinese government has always used WeChat inside China as a tool to control society and censor speech, which is part and parcel its program of high-tech totalitarian control,” Teng has added.
“It has also always used WeChat as a way to export its censorship beyond its borders, to the United States and other countries,” he has said.
“Western countries should consider re-evaluating WeChat as a threat to national security, data security, personal privacy and so on,” Teng has said. “[They] cannot allow China’s censorship system to extend into the West and all around the world.”
Launched by Tencent in 2011, WeChat now has more than 1.1 billion users, second only to WhatsApp and Facebook, but the company keeps users behind China’s complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, even when they are physically in another country, the report noted.
The app is also used by China’s state security police to carry out surveillance and harassment of dissidents and activists in exile who speak out about human rights abuses in the country, or campaign for democratic reform.
Besides, researchers at CitizenLab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, warned in May 2020 that anyone using WeChat, even if they have lived their whole lives outside China, is “subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.”