It is no secret that free journalism and free speech don’t exist in today’s China. However, people never imagined the severity of the censorship and surveillance to be this bad. For some time now, there has been a growing awareness of Tencent. They are a company that owns WeChat and QQ, two of the most globally popular social media platforms. This awareness primarily centers on Tencent’s role in aiding Chinese government censorship and surveillance. However, in the past year, the extent of these actions has become increasingly worrying, both within China and internationally.
How do we know this to be true?
On March 2, Dutch hacker Victor Gevers made a big reveal. Millions of conversations taking place on Tencent apps among users in internet cafés were being relayed to police stations throughout China. This leak came just three days before the company’s founder, Pony Ma, participated in the National People’s Congress. Astonishingly, during the same period when Ma raised concerns about data privacy, security agencies were actively using data from Tencent’s apps to identify unauthorized religious activities.
On March 16, Chenchen Zhang shared a troubling anecdote on Twitter. It involved a member of the Uighur Muslim minority whom the police detained at the mainland China-Hong Kong border and subjected to a three-day interrogation. The reason? Someone on his WeChat contact list had recently “checked in” with a location setting in Mecca. Authorities apparently feared that the Uighur man had made a pilgrimage to Mecca without authorization. In China, that can result in a 15-year prison sentence.
People outside of China are also worried about Tencent
WeChat, while primarily used in China, boasts an estimated user base of 100 to 200 million people beyond China’s borders. This user demographic includes millions of Chinese diaspora members residing in Western countries. Moreover, WeChat’s influence extends across much of Asia, with Malaysia counting 20 million users among its 31 million population. In Thailand, approximately 17 percent of the population holds a WeChat account. In Mongolia, it claimed the second-highest number of downloads in 2017. Myanmar’s Shan State, bordering China, has seen local merchants adopting the app, while the count of retailers in Japan accepting WePay (mostly for Chinese tourists) has greatly increased.
Notably, Tencent has recently acquired a $150 million stake in the popular platform called Reddit. Also, Taiwanese officials indicate the company’s interest in entering Taiwan’s online video market.
Tencent and videogames
Tencent has garnered significant attention and concern in the realm of video games due to its extensive influence and investments in the industry. While it may not be accurate to label Tencent’s involvement as “spyware,” there are valid reasons for scrutiny.
Firstly, Tencent has acquired stakes in numerous gaming companies and titles, amassing a substantial portfolio. Some of the notable acquisitions and partnerships include:
Riot Games: Tencent owns a majority stake (approximately 93%) in Riot Games, the developer behind the immensely popular online game League of Legends.
Supercell: Tencent holds an 84% stake in Supercell, the Finnish mobile game developer responsible for games like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale.
Epic Games: Contrary to the popular belief that Tencent owns Epic Games, they are actually a minority shareholder with about a 40% stake. Epic Games developed the Unreal Engine and the highly successful battle royale game Fortnite.
Tencent’s involvement in these companies raises concerns about data privacy. With its vast user base, Tencent has access to substantial amounts of user data. People have raised concerns about how they use this data and whether the Chinese government could potentially access it. Given China’s strict censorship policies, Tencent’s influence can extend to game content. This could result in alterations or restrictions in games to comply with Chinese regulations. This has led to concerns about artistic freedom and its impact on the gaming experience. Tencent’s significant ownership stakes in various gaming companies have also raised concerns about its potential monopoly power and its ability to shape the global gaming industry.
How to protect yourself from Tencent
For those residing in China, it’s pretty impossible not to use WeChat in daily life. However, exercising caution is crucial. Users should limit their usage to essential functions and explore available resources for enhancing digital security and accessing news more safely.
Users outside of China, especially those without direct connections to the mainland, should reconsider using WeChat. Those communicating with contacts in China can play a role in safeguarding their contacts by suggesting more secure applications in sensitive conversations or adopting homonyms to replace potentially problematic terms, as some journalists have done. Also, members of the Chinese diaspora should diversify their sources of news and information beyond what is available on WeChat.
Steps we can take to stop this
As governments worldwide grapple with issues related to “fake news,” political manipulation, and inadequate data protections on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, similar scrutiny and regulation should be applied to Chinese counterparts such as WeChat. They must be held accountable for any breaches.
Lastly, investors in Tencent should critically assess the moral and political implications of their support for the company. Those concerned about human rights, foreign interference in elections, or privacy violations by tech giants should consider distancing themselves from the company.