Lessons From China on the Coronavirus and the Dangers of App Consolidation

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and the cryptocurrency Libra to work together seamlessly like WeChat in China. That could be frightening.

A woman stands at a stall and displays her smartphone screen.
A woman shows payment to a vendor, sent via WeChat on her smartphone, at a street stall in Beijing on June 23, 2017.
Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

While quarantined in her Wuhan apartment for days on end, the woman who calls herself “Sister Ma” suddenly found herself blocked from her account on WeChat, a platform used by more than 1 billion people in China. Without WeChat, she was cut off from communication with friends and family, the ability to order critical supplies, and contact with her children’s school. “My life is falling apart,” she wrote on a now-deleted but archived message on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Others who found themselves in the same situation described losing all of their digital documents, professional contacts, and access to their digital cash and paid media subscriptions.

As has been well-documented, Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, has been using keywords—like using coronavirus in conjunction with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or epidemic spread plus Xi Jinping—to silence unwanted discussions of the coronavirus on WeChat, with potentially negative effects on health and safety.

But the censorship extends much further than this message-by-message suppression. As Sister Ma’s story demonstrates, Tencent also has been shutting down and suspending the WeChat accounts of those who critique the government’s handling of the virus, and not just in China. Account shutdowns and suspensions in the United States, Europe, and Canada highlight both the growing reach—and power—of China’s chilling suppression apparatus. Once kicked off WeChat, users are often cut off from communiciation with friends and relatives still in China.

These concerns may seem distant to Westerners. But Facebook is seeking to consolidate WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook into a single superapp, to be eventually connected with Libra, the Facebook-developed crypto coin, assuming it can get off the ground. And Mark Zuckerberg has pointed to the China-based behemoth Tencent as his model. While antitrust, anti-competition concerns have been widely aired (and may ultimately lead to the plan’s downfall), there are also independent-speech and censorship-related reasons to be wary, as Tencent’s behavior demonstrates.

Ostensibly a chat app, WeChat is actually a superapp, because it seamlessly integrates many services and products. It is the way the vast majority of Chinese citizens communicate with friends and family. For some, it is a medical scheduling app, used to make and manage doctor’s appointments. And it is a wallet, the means by which users buy groceries, access their bank accounts, pay their mortgages, and engage in just about any financial transaction.

Shutting down a WeChat account is, in effect, a digital form of banishment for the many users who have opted into its ecosystem. Not only is the user cut off from communicating with friends and family, but in what is increasingly becoming a cashless society, it effectively denies users who have concentrated their money in WeChat Wallet the ability to independently function.

Once you are banished, there is not much you can do. It is technically possible to get a new phone number and then open a new account on WeChat. But WeChat will be able to tell that it is the same user. The only remedy is appeal to Tencent, the company that did the blocking in the first place, presumably at the behest of the Chinese state. As far as we know, no such appeal has ever been successful. And there are no equivalent competitors you can turn to instead.

In February, there was a brief moment in which free speech seemed to flourish, as multitudes expressed their despair over the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was silenced as he tried to warn of the government’s cover-up of the coronavirus. But that momentary relaxing of the censorship apparatus was followed by a crackdown. Those who raised concerns, including many of those stuck in home quarantine like Sister Ma, found their WeChat accounts suspended and possibly permanently blocked. The exact numbers are unclear.

Tencent has been exercising its market muscles to control speech in a range of other ways as well. In a bold move, it is now seeking to dictate what news outlets can and cannot say about its own business practices. Take the situation facing 36Kr Media, the most read source of tech news in China. 36Kr Media has been reporting on Tencent’s efforts to ban links to competitors’ apps—including those of rival ByteDance (the parent of TikTok)—from being shared on WeChat.

In early March, 36Kr reported that Tencent was blocking links leading to Feishu, ByteDance’s workplace collaboration tool, at a point in time in which there was an increased demand for these kinds of online office tools, thanks again to the coronavirus. (Tencent has a similar, albeit much less popular, product.) In response, Tencent threatened to delete 36Kr’s WeChat public accounts—which have access to more than 1 million active readers—if 36Kr did not take down and stop such reporting. Rather than lose its most important publishing platform, 36Kr complied. Tencent nonetheless felt the need to punish the company for its publication of unflattering news and suspended 36Kr from publishing on WeChat for a day.

This would be akin to Facebook getting the Wall Street Journal to delete all reports about its bad behaviors by threatening to ban the Wall Street Journal from publishing on Facebook.

In this case, it came to light only because the senior management of ByteDance, one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, called Tencent out. Yang Jibin, a senior communications director for ByteDance, described what had happened on his personal WeChat account, calling Tencent’s practices “barbaric.” Most smaller companies and individuals affected by similar moves lack the political power or wherewithal to protest. As Yang aptly wrote: “36Kr is a public company listed in the United States. It made me wonder how media outlets far smaller than 36kr are supposed to survive in our era.”

To be clear: Facebook is not Tencent., and the U.S. government is not China. Facebook, as Zuckerberg reminded us last October, “stands for voice and free expression.” And thanks to the First Amendment, the U.S. government cannot, and presumably would not, seek to suppress the kinds of public health discussions and dissent that are censored in China. Nor could it enlist private companies to do so on its behalf.

But Facebook does not operate exclusively in the United States. It, like all multinational tech companies, is obliged to comply with the rules set in the jurisdictions in which it operates. In Thailand, that means no critiques of the Thai monarchy. In Turkey, it means no critiques of depictions of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In Germany, that means no hate speech—a concept that is imprecisely defined, but undoubtedly encompasses categories of protected speech in the United States. And in Poland, it briefly meant no mention of the country’s role in the Holocaust.

U.S.-based tech companies often deal with these and other wide-ranging country and regional-specific speech restrictions via something known as geo-blocking, which enables them to restrict in one region content that is otherwise permitted by the terms of service and thus accessible elsewhere. Implicit in this approach is a recognition of the obligation to comply with local law, even if it means complying with takedown and keep-off demands that run contrary to free speech commitments elsewhere.

But imagine an increasingly cashless, online world, in which Facebook, or any other tech company, succeeds in its bid to integrate all of its communications services, banking and payment processing services, ride-hailing services, and workplace collaboration tools into one giant seamless app—and captures the lion’s share of the market in the process. And imagine—hardly far-fetched—other countries learning from the Chinese censorship model. Now, in addition to demanding that the key tech companies block objectionable communications, which can be done in a geographically segmented way, governments increasingly demand that companies block an unwanted speaker’s account. In such situations, there is no geographic splitting of the difference. The dissident speaker is simply kicked off—denied access to digitally stored savings, workplace accounts, and news feeds—all in one fell swoop. And they are also denied the ability to engage in just about any financial transaction. Just like with WeChat in China.

Even in the United States, where the First Amendment provides core protections for free speech, the trend is toward more and more control and limits on concerning speech and bad actors online. This is a reasonable, and in some key cases critically needed, response to the many harms perpetuated online. But as both the U.S. government and U.S. tech companies themselves take more and more steps to restrict unwanted actors and actions online, only some such decisions are clear-cut—hence Facebook’s decision to outsource some of the hardest ones to an oversight board. It’s already a big enough deal to stifle someone’s ability to communicate. It’s even a bigger deal if, like with Tencent, platforms can also make it near impossible to buy groceries, access one’s mortgage, and pay bills.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.