23 January 2019
Could China's censors be actually planning to ban WhatsApp if there was no strong reaction from the public? Photo: Reuters
Could China's censors be actually planning to ban WhatsApp if there was no strong reaction from the public? Photo: Reuters

What if there’s no WhatsApp in China?

With the exception of the 1.4 billion Chinese people who are barred from popular international social networks, only a few people on the planet can actually withstand a day without Facebook or Google.

So the news last Friday that Facebook’s WhatsApp appeared to have been suspended for a day should serve as a warning to travelers to mainland China that they could very well be blocked from the outside world.

It’s been reported that WhatsApp users experienced service issues such as in making video and voice calls as well as sending or receiving images, videos and even text-based messages on Aug. 18th, a month after a similar outage occurred in July.

Despite the Great Firewall of China, arguably the world’s largest censorship system, many people in the country, especially expatriates and youngsters, manage to gain access to blocked websites by using virtual private networks (VPN).

But even this window of untrammeled communication is getting smaller. Before summer, many popular VPNs failed to load after Beijing reportedly told its three largest telecommunication carriers to completely block access to these services by early next year.

Even Apple has started pulling VPN apps from its China App Store, indicating that it is under pressure from local authorities who are determined to clamp down on “illegal” online content. China, after all, is Apple’s biggest market after the US.

Ditto for Amazon, which runs cloud-computing and other web services in the mainland. Its local partner Beijing Sinnet Technology warned local customers to cease using any software that would allow people to circumvent the country’s censorship system.

All told, President Xi Jinping is making sure everything is under control ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, during which far-reaching changes in the composition of the top leadership are to be made.

Some observers suspect that the suspension of WhatsApp services was a kind of trial balloon and the country’s censors plan to ban the instant messaging platform altogether if there was no strong opposition.

They noted that Google experienced similar outages before it was banned in 2004.

Two years ago many harbored hopes of a more open China when Beijing established a free trade zone in Shanghai where expatriate businessmen could access Facebook, among other perks.

But now the central authorities appear to be tightening their grip on the internet.

WhatsApp used to be banned in China, but the service was resumed after it was acquired by Facebook.

Still it is not the No. 1 instant messaging service in the country.

Tencent’s WeChat remains the most popular, although it’s not the most secure in terms of privacy.

So everything seems in order before the party congress this autumn.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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