09 November 2020

The New York Times: “Forget TikTok. China’s Powerhouse App is WeChat”

Ms. Li felt the whipcrack of China’s internet controls firsthand when she returned to China in 2018 to take a real estate job. After her experience overseas, she sought to balance her news diet with groups that shared articles on world events. As the coronavirus spread in early 2020 and China’s relations with countries around the world strained, she posted an article on WeChat from the U.S. government-run Radio Free Asia about the deterioration of Chinese-Canadian diplomacy, a piece that would have been censored.

The next day, four police officers showed up at her family’s apartment. They carried guns and riot shields.

My mother was terrified, she said. She turned white when she saw them.

She found people nearby similar to her. Many of her Chinese friends were on it. They found restaurants nearly as good as those at home and explored the city together. One public account set up by a Chinese immigrant organized activities. It kindled more than a few romances. It was incredibly fun to be on WeChat, she recalled.

Now the app reminds her of jail. During questioning, police told her that a surveillance system, which they called Skynet, flagged the link she shared. Sharing a name with the A.I. from the Terminator movies, Skynet is a real-life techno-policing system, one of several Beijing has spent billions to create.

Paul Mozur

Hmm, naming a surveillance system ‘Skynet’: not ominous at all… Growing up under a Communist regime, I shudder to think the same practices of banning criticism and jailing citizens for their opinions are alive and well in the largest country in the world, with an entire arsenal of modern technology at their disposal. And now the government is trying to extend its reach outside its borders through apps like WeChat and TikTok. I have little confidence that the US government will enact any measures against these apps or Chinese influence in general – Trump was too incompetent to achieve anything, and a new Biden administration will have its hands full with any number of other issues before this one.

A WeChat ban would cut dead millions of conversations
A WeChat ban would cut dead millions of conversations. It would also be an easy victory for American policymakers seeking to push back against China’s techno-authoritarian overreach. Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

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