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China tightens censorship on mobile messaging apps

Tencent Holdings's WeChat application icon and website on display.
Brent Lewin | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Tencent Holdings's WeChat application icon and website on display.

China tightened censorship on mobile messaging apps on Thursday with stiff rules aimed at limiting dissent, while it simultaneously emerged that a number of foreign chat services had been blocked in the country.

The new rules, announced by the State Council Information Office, ban bloggers from publishing political news without first receiving permission, and require providers to clearly mark the accounts qualified to do so.

New users will also have to verify their identity with providers and sign an agreement to act within the "seven bottom lines" as defined by the Communist party: "the law, the socialist system, the nation's interests, citizens' rights, public order, social morals and authenticity of information".

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Zhang Lifan, a prominent historian and blogger in Beijing, said the lack of specifics gave the authorities broad powers to interpret the regulations as they saw fit.

"I think this provision is more to threaten and give warnings than to actually provide supervision and control," he said. "What we should look out for is who will be the first to be punished using these provisions, then it will be clear who was the intended target."

Shares in Tencent, whose instant messaging apps WeChat and QQ are by far the most popular services in China, slid 3.5 per cent to HK$128.30 on the news, their biggest drop since May 7. Beijing's move echoed a similar campaign last year targeting Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like service, which led users to leave in droves.

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Chao Wang, an analyst at Nomura, said the share price had fallen because of fears that WeChat would receive the same treatment as Sina Weibo. "People remember the impact on Sina Weibo, when the share price was quite volatile," he said.

While the new rules appeared to target domestic chat services, it emerged yesterday that a number of foreign chat apps had been blocked in China since July 1 because of what Beijing said were concerns that the chat apps were being used to foment terrorism.

South Korea's science ministry said Chinese officials had confirmed the blockage to them, providing the first official explanation for the outage of a number of services that users had noticed since the start of last month.

The blockages apply to Korean-owned instant messaging app Line, Korean chat app Kakaotalk, push-to-talk apps Talkbox and Vower, and texting app Didi.

"Beijing told Seoul that it had blocked some foreign messaging services through which terrorism-related information was circulating," the science ministry said in a statement.

The blockage of Line had previously been linked to pro-democracy marches in Hong Kong at the start of July.

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"[Internet] blocking in the name of terrorism is quite new," said Mr Zhang. "We can only say that this is a form of intensifying control and regulation over speech."

Chinese officials have given their Korean counterparts no specific intelligence to back up the decision, according to Lee Jin-kyu, the Korean science ministry's internet director. "The ministry said China did not pinpoint any specific terrorism activity for its move," he said.

Qiao Mu, a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, suggested countering terrorism might not be Beijing's real motive. "This alleged link between terrorism and these messaging apps is pretty far-fetched" he said. "On the whole, it sounds like they are using antiterrorism as an excuse to ban foreign apps, which are harder for the government to control."

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Historically, Beijing has been suspicious of any foreign internet sites whose servers are located outside China and are thus difficult to monitor. Services such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are all blocked.

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