Vancouver (Toronto Star) – Users of China’s hugely popular social-media app WeChat know it well: the big red dot.
The dot lets them know the news article they want to read is no longer available. It says the link is suspected of phishing or malware and has been blocked, but in reality the dot often appears when the Chinese government doesn’t want a story seen.
Launched in 2011 by Chinese company Tencent Holdings, WeChat now has a billion monthly active users worldwide and is an essential platform for a plethora of media outlets, communities and businesses.
Last week the dot came and went during the bail hearing of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies. Meng was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 at the request of American authorities over fraud allegations. She was released on $10-million bail to await an extradition ordeal.
But immigrants from China who still use WeChat in Canada to get their news noticed the red dot appeared when things weren’t looking good for Meng. Arrested, in legal limbo and the subject of worldwide attention, it looked as though she could be spending the next few months in custody.
When she was down and out, the red dot was there blocking Chinese-language news stories about the arrest — but once Meng’s fortunes changed and she was released on bail, the red dot went back into hiding and WeChat users could read all about her.
That was no accident, said Samuel Wade, deputy editor of the China Digital Times.
The website published two directives it obtained from the Chinese government earlier this week ordering websites in the country to only report official Chinese state media versions of the Meng story.
“The general approach is keeping a lid on the intensity of coverage while also controlling its direction,” Wade told StarMetro.
“They do this by promoting approved accounts from core state media and official bodies and by marginalizing independent reporting and public reactions, like comments or social-media posts at home, and media coverage or official statements from abroad.”
Wade said the directives have been “consistent” with others regarding recent U.S.-China tensions.
In Canada, media companies can write what they want, of course — but their stories can also be deleted from WeChat, which is subject to Chinese censorship rules, said Zhang Xiao Jun, editor of the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily, which is owned by Torstar.
“They frequently block articles on our public account that are about Chinese government corruption or powerful people there,” said Zhang.
He said about 60 per cent of the newspaper’s readers are Canadians with Hong Kong roots and the rest are mostly from mainland China or Taiwan.
Zhang said many newcomers to Canada still prefer to read the news in their own language, and WeChat is a popular aggregator. The influence of the app is immense and can sway the opinions of Chinese-speaking Canadians by what it allows to be posted.
In order to reach this market, Zhang said, Sing Tao staff will post articles in up to 100 different WeChat groups; doing it this way helps controversial stories fly under the radar of the censors. Each chat group can contain up to 500 members.
“We saw that more people went to our website’s coverage of Meng’s bail hearing after we spread the word about it on WeChat,” he said.
Gao Bingchen is an independent journalist in Vancouver who also relies heavily on WeChat to reach his audience in Canada. He said he has had his channels deleted six times for covering sensitive stories.
This has included Gao’s stories about the Chinese government, powerful Chinese figures and even well-connected Canadian community leaders in Vancouver with connections to the Communist Party of China.
This is dangerous for Canada because it means the Chinese government has influence over the news Canadians can read.
“WeChat is a social-media platform controlled by China,” Gao explained. “The internet has no national boundaries, so overseas Chinese who use WeChat are subject to China’s control.”