China Blocks WhatsApp Ahead Communist Party Congress

Andre Parker September 26, 2017
China Blocks WhatsApp Ahead Communist Party Congress

China has broaden its censorship efforts by blocking the Facebook Inc-owned WhatsApp messaging app in the mainland, as it ramps up surveillance ahead of the big summit next month.

This disruption in the service of WhatsApp is considered a big setback for the social media giant. Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, who currently handles other pressing matters, has been trying hard to re-enter the Chinese market. He even reportedly studies the Chinese language intensively. The Facebook website, which is the tech giant’s main social media service, has been blocked in China since 2009. Instagram, which is its image-sharing app, is also blocked in the Asian giant.

Chinese censors previously started blocking video chats and the sending of photographs and other files in mid-July, although sending text messages on WhatsApp was untouched. After a few weeks, the restriction was lifted temporarily.

Presently, the functions of the messaging app seem to be broadly blocked in China, including sending text messages. According to Nadim Kobeissi, who is an applied cryptographer at a Paris-based research start-up, the sudden blocking of WhatsApp text messages indicates that the censors used by China may have been upgraded with a specialized software to interfere with such messages. The messages sent through WhatsApp rely on an encryption technology that is used by only a few service providers.

“This is not the typical technical method in which the Chinese government censors something,” said Kobeissi, adding that the blocking efforts were detected as early as Wednesday and became comprehensive by Monday.

WhatsApp carry with it a very favorable reputation among cryptographers for security because the app provides an “end-to-end” encryption, which means that even Facebook does not have any information as to what the users are talking about be it in text, voice, or video. Most of the messaging app’s advanced features rely partly on broadly-used internet data transfer protocols, especially the text messaging feature that is using a more heavily encrypted method.

All these things solidify the suspicion that the apparatus that Chinese officials use may have found a way to target more uncommon and sophisticated data transport protocol.

Facebook declined to issue a comment on the matter.

“As we get closer to the Party congress, I think the authorities will use more extreme censorship measures. The public knows that WeChat isn’t safe… Me and other dissidents use WhatsApp to communicate 70 percent on the time. For the few days WhatsApp was completely inaccessible, we didn’t talk at all,” said Hu Jia, a prominent Beijing-based activist.

Other Chinese users said that the disruption on the messaging app would give them a hard time working with clients abroad.

“Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and Viber were blocked before. Now, even WhatsApp is blocked? Without good messaging tools, it will reduce the efficiency of the foreign trade industry,” wrote one person on China’s Twitter-like social media website Weibo.

“Losing contact with my clients, forced back to the age of telephone and email for work now,” complained another user.

Several other US-based online services have been previously banned in China, such as Google, Twitter, and other major western news websites. This has been noted in Chinese authorities’ history. This resulted to users opting to use communication methods that function smoothly and quickly, such as the WeChat app of Tencent, a Chinese internet company. However, Chinese authorities can easily monitor these alternatives.

“If you’re only allowed to drive one mile per hour, you’re not going to drive on that road, even if it’s not technically blocked,” said Lokman Tsui, an internet communications specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

This month, WeChat sent a notice to users informing them about its compliance with official requests for information. This confirms the long-standing suspicion that the website stores, and if needed, discloses personal data of its users. The messaging service has over 900 million active users.

On the other hand, there are services by American tech companies that are still available in mainland China. Skype’s service for phone calls, which does not use an end-to-end encryption, is tolerated in China. Beijing allows the FaceTime service by Apple, which has an end-to-end encryption but does not enable user to exchange secret codes to combat “man in the middle attacks.”

Chinese users can still use WhatsApp if they first connect to a virtual private network in order to access channels outside mainland China, although it has also been reported that the government has been conducting a crackdown on virtual private networks.

All these censorships and manipulations suggest that the Chinese government is pushing internet users toward communication methods that can be monitored.

On the other side of the spectrum, this effort by the Chinese government bears resonance with other world leaders’ push to scour the internet of contents deemed improper and/or inappropriate. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been under the scrutiny of authorities in recent days

Other foreign companies can still be allowed to run their platforms in China as long as they comply with China’s regulatory policies when it comes to censorship.

On Monday, China’s cyber watchdog said that it has handed down "maximum" penalties to some of the country’s top tech firms like Tencent, Baidu, and Weibo for failing to properly monitor online content. The contents in question include fake news, pornography, and those that “incite ethnic tension” and “threaten social order.”

Aside from censoring social media websites and contents on the internet, the Chinese authorities have also laid hands on other entities. It has closed numerous churches and jailed large numbers of human rights activists, lawyers and advocates for ethnic minorities.

Chinese president Xi Jin Ping

Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s congress, which is held only once every five years, will start on October 18. In this event, the congress will decide and select the party’s leadership that will run the country. The event next month is expected to reconfirm president Xi’s grip on power. Substantial uncertainties still loom large around the congress over who will accompany Xi on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which is the party’s highest-ranking group.

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Andre Parker


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