Why No One Should Be Surprised About Tencent

MTP readers will not be surprised at the Executive Order relating to Tencent and one of its apps called “WeChat.”  The WeChat app has long been considered a tool of censorship associated with China’s Ministry of State Security and the Chinese Communist Party.

From The Standard

Most prominently, WeChat was linked to action taken by the ruling Chinese Communist Party against Dr. Li Wenliang who CNN described as Wuhan’s hero whistleblower who posted his concerns about the COVID-19 virus back in December on his medical school’s WeChat message group:

[Dr.] Li Wenliang died of the [COVID-19] virus in the early hours of Friday morning local time, Wuhan Central Hospital, where he worked, said in a statement. The confirmation follows a series of conflicting statements about his condition from the hospital and Chinese state media outlets.

“Our hospital’s ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was unfortunately infected with coronavirus during his work in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic,” the hospital said. “He died at 2:58 am on Feb 7 after attempts to resuscitate were unsuccessful.”

Li was among a number of supposed “rumormongers” detained in December for spreading news about the virus. He had warned about a potential “SARS-like” virus spreading in Wuhan. Nothing Li said was incorrect, but it came as officials in the city were downplaying the severity of the outbreak and its risk to the public.  [Oh, “downplaying”…that’s what you call it…]

Li had raised the alarm about the virus that ultimately took his life.

In December, he posted in his medical school alumni group on the Chinese messaging app WeChat that seven patients from a local seafood market had been diagnosed with a SARS-like illness and were quarantined in his hospital in Wuhan.

Soon after he posted the message, Li was accused of rumor-mongering by the Wuhan police.

Tencent’s facilitation of censorship on behalf of the ruling Chinese Communist Party is well known.  CNBC reported recently:

Chinese internet giant Tencent has reportedly been surveilling content posted by foreign users on its wildly popular messaging service WeChat in order to help it refine censorship on its platform at home.

WeChat has over 1 billion users globally. It is the most popular messaging app in China and ingrained in daily life, allowing people to do everything from making payments to hailing taxis.

Surveillance and censorship of social media and messaging platforms in China is commonplace. Companies that run such services often remove or block content that is likely to offend Beijing.

But Citizen Lab, a research center that is part of the University of Toronto, said in a report published Thursday, that “documents and images shared among non-China-registered accounts are subject to content surveillance and are used to build up the database WeChat uses to censor China-registered accounts.”

Even the United Nations has distanced itself from Tencent according to Foreign Policy:

The United Nations has backtracked on a pact with the Chinese telecommunications giant Tencent Holdings to provide videoconferencing and text services for the international organization’s 75th anniversary, following backlash from U.S. officials and lawmakers as well as human rights groups. Critics claim the arrangement rewards a company that has enabled Beijing’s digital surveillance efforts and stifled free speech on the internet in China.

Late last month, the U.N. sparked a political firestorm when it announced plans to enlist the help of the Chinese social media and video game giant to serve as a platform for an online discussion with millions of netizens around the world on the future of the U.N. in the run-up to its 75th anniversary observance. Over the following weeks, U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates pressed the U.N. to ditch the deal, saying it would tarnish the international organization’s reputation as a champion of free expression and human rights.

According to the Freedom House “Freedom on the Net” annual report for 2019 regarding the use of WeChat to suppress the Chinese people on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre:

Censorship reached unprecedented extremes as the government enhanced its information controls in advance of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in the face of widespread antigovernment protests in Hong Kong. In a relatively new tactic, administrators shuttered individual accounts on the hugely popular WeChat social media platform for any sort of “deviant” behavior, including minor infractions such as commenting on environmental disasters, which encouraged pervasive self-censorship.Officials have reported removing tens of thousands of accounts for allegedly “harmful” content on a quarterly basis.

According to the BBC:

On 30 December [Dr. Li] sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group warning them about the outbreak and advising they wear protective clothing to avoid infection.

What Dr Li didn’t know then was that the disease that had been discovered was an entirely new coronavirus.

Four days later he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau where he was told to sign a letter. In the letter he was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order”.

“We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice – is that understood?” Underneath in Dr Li’s handwriting is written: “Yes, I do.”

He was one of eight people who police said were being investigated for “spreading rumours”.

At the end of January, Dr Li published a copy of the letter on [another Tencent social media app called] Weibo and explained what had happened. In the meantime, local authorities had apologised to him but that apology came too late.

“Rumormongering” is very serious charge in China’s hierarchy of social credit scores.  You may have heard about the social credit score system that Google supported for years through the controversial “Dragonfly” program.  “Rumormongering” is the kind of ding on your social credit score that can severely limit freedom of movement, college for your children, and keeping your job.  So even though the CCP eventually apologized to Dr. Li, the damage was done.

Face it–this is not some Pepe-laden fringe conspiracy theory.  There’s a reason why Tencent’s Pony Ma Huateng is on the CCP’s “hot 100” list of entrepreneurs and is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (according to his Wikipedia page).  WeChat is a way for Pony Ma and the CCP to keep track of what the Chinese people are thinking and where they are going both in Mainland China and also in the Chinese diaspora including in the U.S.  This is not a secret.  It’s all in the open source–WeChat is a key component of the Great Chinese Firewall.

Every now and then it backfires, and Dr. Li ends up being a hero.

As FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Hudson Institute on July 7, 2020:

[L]et me be clear: This is not about the Chinese people, and it’s certainly not about Chinese Americans. Every year, the United States welcomes more than 100,000 Chinese students and researchers into this country. For generations, people have journeyed from China to the United States to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their families—and our society is better for their contributions. So, when I speak of the threat from China, I mean the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party….