Human rights advocates and some academics in China have had their WeChat messaging app accounts restricted in the past few weeks, multiple people affected have said, as Beijing cracks down on dissent before the Beijing Winter Olympics.
China hopes to make next week’s Games a soft power triumph, although the lead-up has seen some Western powers launch a diplomatic boycott over Beijing’s rights record and cybersecurity firms warn athletes of digital surveillance risks.
For China’s ever-dwindling community of rights advocates, the imminent arrival of the world’s best athletes has triggered a familiar clampdown.
Eight people told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that their WeChat accounts had been restricted in some form since early last month, with some unable to use their accounts entirely and forced to re-register.
The restrictions came as authorities detained two prominent human rights advocates, lawyer Xie Yang (謝陽) and writer Yang Maodong (楊茂), while a third rights lawyer missing since early last month is believed by relatives to be in secret detention.
“This storm of shuttering WeChat accounts is too strong and unprecedented,” said veteran journalist Gao Yu (高瑜), whose account had features such as group chat messaging permanently disabled for the first time on Dec. 20.
China routinely suppresses the social media accounts and physical movements of dissidents during politically sensitive periods such as Chinese Communist Party gatherings in Beijing or key anniversaries such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
A National Party Congress is to take place toward the end of this year when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the nation’s most authoritarian leader in a generation, is expected to further cement his rule with a third term.
The arrival of the Winter Olympics has presaged a clampdown similar to those surrounding other major events.
“The government now wants to make sure that people don’t cross the line online to poke the facade of a perfect Winter Olympic Games,” said Yaqiu Wang (王亞秋), a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Tencent’s app WeChat is a mainstay of daily life in China, with users relying on it for a range of services, including payments and scanning health codes that permit entry to public venues.
“I know many people who’ve been banned from posting in group chats or posting WeChat Moments lately,” a Beijing lawyer whose account was restricted last month said on condition of anonymity.
Beijing-based writer Zhang Yihe (章詒和) said her WeChat group chat and Moments functions — similar to Facebook’s Wall or Instagram Stories — were restricted on Jan. 8.
Tsinghua University sociology professor Guo Yuhua (郭于華) confirmed her account was permanently blocked the same day, while prominent legal academic He Weifang (賀衛方) said he encountered the same on Jan. 9.
“Isn’t this equal to removing an individual from a public space?” said Zhang, adding that she can now only send WeChat messages to individual users.
“Before and during the Olympics is a major sensitive period,” added a Beijing-based rights advocate whose account was restricted twice in the past two months.
Tencent, the owner of WeChat, did not respond to a request for comment.
The International Olympic Committee said in an e-mailed response that it “has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country,” adding that it “must remain neutral on all global political issues.”
Beijing Games organizers said that they “oppose the politicization of sports” and were “not aware of these matters.”
Meanwhile, those still free lament mounting restrictions on speech under the present political climate.
“The space for public discourse is getting smaller and smaller,” He said.
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