The show trial of activist Lee Ming-che once again highlights the dangers of using Chinese social media. Even citizens outside China can be targeted and prosecuted for activities on popular services like WeChat and QQ, and Taiwanese nationals are in particular danger.
Earlier this month, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che showed up in a courtroom in southern China after more than 170 days of detention. In court, Lee pleaded guilty to subverting state power in what was almost certainly a forced confession. The bulk of the “evidence” against Lee and his alleged accomplice Peng Yuhua, a Chinese citizen, consisted of social media activities.
The court indictment stated that between 2012 and 2016, Lee had defamed and attacked the Chinese government “via social media platforms, such as QQ, Facebook, WeChat and the like.” Peng was said to have “recruited” Lee to a QQ chat group, after the two first made contact on the microblog Sina Weibo. In this group chat, Lee was said to have attacked China’s social status by advocating a rotating leadership and multi-party rule. He was also accused of informing chat group members on how to contact foreign media and register an NGO overseas.
WeChat and QQ are both owned by the Chinese Internet company Tencent, now boast some 963 million and 662 million users respectively. Tencent was able to corner the social media market in China only after an aggressive government campaign launched in the summer of 2013 against the popular microblog Sina Weibo.
This started the slow death of Sina Weibo as a platform to discuss news and current events, and paved the way for Tencent’s services to dominate the market — its market value rose tenfold in less than six years.
It started with the parading of influential blogger Charles Xue on state television. In handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit, Xue could be seen “confessing” that his large number of followers had “corrupted” his mind, resulting in him posting material without fact checking for the sake of personal fame. For good measure, he was also accused of being a regular buyer of prostitutes and received an eight-month prison sentence.
As if the sentence wasn’t enough of a warning, at the same time an infamous law was imposed stating that bloggers could be detained and sentenced to three years in prison for any post that was shared 500 times or viewed 5,000 times, or if it was also deemed inaccurate or libelous by the authorities. This started the slow death of Sina Weibo as a platform to discuss news and current events, and paved the way for Tencent’s services to dominate the market — its market value rose tenfold in less than six years.
As opposed to Sina Weibo, posts on the Tencent platforms can only be seen by your friends, and text messages only read by members of private chat groups that can have no more than 500 users (on QQ) and 2,000 users (on WeChat). This means messages cannot spread as fast as on a microblog platform, but nevertheless fast enough for an increasingly control-minded Chinese government to make even those software harder and even more dangerous to use.
New privacy policies
There has long been an understanding among many users that Chinese authorities can easily monitor discussions on Tencent platforms. Private chat logs are increasingly used as evidence in court cases: some of my friends in Beijing were taken in by police and shown their message histories from WeChat, information that was then used against them.
…creators and administrators of group chats will be held responsible for the messages and behavior of all members.
Furthermore, the new rules also state that WeChat will share this data with the authorities to comply with “applicable laws or regulations.” The user information will be shared after a court order, or even worse, “in response to a request by a government authority, law enforcement agency or similar body.” Alas, a request is all that is needed for China’s government to retrieve everything you said or all the information you ever shared on your WeChat.
Earlier this month, another set of regulations was sending chills among many of WeChat’s 963 million users. It stated that creators and administrators of group chats will be held responsible for the messages and behavior of all members. Even though the rules are supposed to take effect in October, Bloomberg reported this month that at least 40 individuals have already been punished accordingly after online petitions spread among group chats. A man who used the platform to complain about police raids was also arrested.
Self-censorship is the most successful kind of censorship. The increased risk of punishment have reportedly led to many administrators disbanding WeChat groups, or imposing rules discouraging group members from spreading rumors or “unauthorized information” about the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
A similar pattern can be seen concerning the total ban of personal VPN services that was announced earlier this summer. Although the ban is expected to come into effect in February next year, last month a man in Jiangsu Province was detained for earning some US$15 selling software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship. Even worse, a man from Guangdong Province was recently sentenced to nine months in prison for selling VPN software on his personal website.
Full access to your phone
This summer also featured another awkward discovery, namely that of a virus named xRAT that targets your entire phone through your WeChat or QQ account. The virus is a trojan, which means it will mask itself as a PDF file or something else that is downloadable. Similar viruses were making the rounds during the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong 2014, but xRat is reportedly more sophisticated and also operates with administrator privileges.
In plain language, what this means is that this virus can access and even control all functions of your phone. Apart from WeChat and QQ, full control can also be exercised over other apps or services installed including photos, downloads, phone records, contact lists and potentially even login details for encrypted e-mails or services. xRat can even turn the microphone and camera on. It is also invisible, and will not disappear by just uninstalling the Tencent platforms. A factory reset and change of existing PIN codes and passwords is the only solution.
Earlier this month, I spoke with a source who works in the security and protection sector. He confirmed that people within the industry are increasingly worried over the situation, and try to keep their use of Chinese social media apps to a minimum, instead going for services like Telegram or Wire. The source added he carried two phones for a while; one “normal” phone and one with a minimum of personal information and with only Chinese social media apps installed on it.
If there was any doubt before, the show trial of Lee Ming-che shows that the threat of communicating via WeChat or QQ is real and alive. Apart from the fact that even foreigners can now be prosecuted for actions like sharing foreign media contacts, any Chinese citizen of course runs an even greater risk when speaking about sensitive topics with foreign contacts on those platforms. It is therefore advisable for anyone to minimize their Chinese social media usage.
It is also worryingly that Facebook was mentioned during the trial of Lee Ming-che. The fact that Facebook is a foreign service and also blocked in China apparently will not stop the authorities from using content as part of evidence in a domestic court case, even against a foreign national. Indeed, the Yahoo case that landed journalist Shi Tao in prison for 10 years in 2005 should be enough of a warning for anyone that even Western Internet companies might provide the Chinese regime with vital information.
Recent regulations and events make it very that the Chinese regime is stepping up its efforts to expose activism through social media, and now even foreigners are targeted.