Dozens of popular WeChat accounts, some with hundreds upon thousands of followers, were shut down or suspended yesterday, most likely in part of the government’s sweeping crackdown on online content.
Many of the accounts were operated by online news outlets like NetEase or popular columnists such as Xu Danei, whose account had an estimated 200,000 subscribers. South China Morning Post cited industry insiders who said the suspension order was handed down yesterday afternoon with no given reason, and that most of the shuttered accounts were known for posting commentaries on articles covering current affairs.
“No reason was given,” the insider said. “Some of the accounts were shut permanently.”
China Digital Times published a partial list of the WeChat accounts deleted yesterday with translated account names “to give an idea of the types of individual and media accounts that are being targeted”.
Accounts include Beijing New Media Stories (北京新媒体故事), Xueye Bimen [Banned Books] (雪夜闭门), Elephant Magazine (大象公会) (http://idaxiang.org) and Truth Channel (真话频道).
WeChat recently began taking over Weibo as a popular platform for users to discuss pressing political issues. The number of people using social media venues like Sina Weibo fell nine percent from 2012 to 2013 while the number of users on mobile messaging apps like WeChat have increased.
In September 2013, a new regulation was introduced to counter online “rumor mongering”, and according to the policy, posting messages viewed as ‘inaccurate’ by the Chinese government that are reposted 500 times or viewed by 5,0000 online users can land a person up to three years in jail.
In the first case of its kind under this policy, a 16-year-old middle school student was arrested in September following a post of his on Sina Weibo that went viral.
Of course, WeChat was never exempt from similar censors. Last year, Tech in Asia conducted a series of tests on WeChat and found that even conversations taking place outside of China were being censored.
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.
Users attempting to click on the accounts deleted yesterday are greeted with a message saying the account was shut down for violating regulations.
The Post points out that the shutdown fell on the same day as the politically sensitive National People’s Congress session. During Premier Li Keqiang’s annual news conference, news reporters were reportedly told not to ask about questions surrounding the investigation into Zhou Yongkong, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee believed to be detained under suspicion of corruption.
An unnamed internet operator also told the Post that the crackdown on online content has intensified since Lu Wei, former Xinhua executive and Beijing vice-mayor, assumed the post of director of the State Internet Information Office last year.