By Henry Williams.
Image credit: Hardware Zone Malaysia.
WeChat, China’s upstart, and hugely popular instant messaging application has been caught with its censorship pants down. Tech in Asia have conducted tests over the last few days, and have found that even conversations taking place entirely outside of China can’t escape the censors’ big red button.
The site tried sending the Chinese characters of recently controversial “Southern Weekend“, and got an alert saying the message contained restricted words, preventing it from being posted.
It should be noted that writing the name of the paper in English wasn’t blocked – so it’s possible the restrictions are targeted only at those writing in Chinese, wherever they happen to be.
The application, launched as Weixin in September 2011, has been growing rapidly since its global re-launch as WeChat in April 2012. It’s expected to hit 300 million registered users this month. To appreciate how gigantic that user base really is, you need to consider that its main competitors, Whatsapp and LINE, have just 170 million users combined, though most of these are outside mainland China.
As a company operating within China, censorship within the bounds of the Great Firewall was always a given, but global censorship is a risky development in an app that has the potential for worldwide success. It’s not entirely clear whether Tencent, the app’s creator, is just using a hammer to crack a nut, or is being forced to censor because of the use of China-based servers for the service.
The Next Web suggests that to be successful, Tencent need to branch out, and create a separate WeChat brand to cater for users overseas. Evernote, the popular US-based notetaking system, recently did the reverse and created a Chinese-branded service to cater for mainland users while at the same time complying with government regulations.
Chinese companies have been enjoying an unhealthy level of suspicion overseas recently, so this unlikely to allay fears of Chinese government interference in internationally marketed products. Global growth is key at firms beyond Tencent too, with Sina having just deployed an English Weibo interface in an effort to grow the appeal of the site.