On Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, hundreds of desperate users were writing “confession letters” this past week.
“I have been in a terrible mental state due to the massive pressure from recent pandemic prevention measures. I lost my control, and sent sensitive statements in a group chat with six people,” one user wrote. “I have profoundly realized my mistake. I hope Tencent can give me a chance to start with a clean slate. I won’t let down the party and the country.” The message was posted with a special hashtag for “Tencent Customer Service.”
This type of message, which surged on Thursday, varies in substance but shares an urgent plea from users who have been banned from the Tencent-owned super app WeChat—begging company representatives to restore their social accounts to the service that has become an almost indispensable part of life in China. While the hashtags themselves aren’t new, they were flooded late in the week after WeChat reportedly banned a large number of users. Those affected believe it was because they had discussed a rare political protest in Beijing.
It all started on the afternoon of October 13, two days before the incredibly high-profile 20th Communist Party Congress, when a protester hung banners on an overpass in the capital city that called for removing pandemic control measures and instating democratic reforms. “Say no to Covid test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom,” part of one banner reads. “Go on strike, remove the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” reads another.
The timing right before the party congress—as well as the highly sensitive act of mentioning the name of the Chinese president, who is expected to clinch an unprecedented third term at the meeting—has made discussion of the event tightly censored on Chinese social media.
On Weibo, any user content that includes words like “Beijing,” “bridge,” and “brave” are restricted from being searched. Apple Music’s Chinese version removed a song named “Sitong Bridge,” presumably only because the name refers to the place where the protest happened.
This censorship extends to WeChat, the dominant messaging app with over 1.2 billion global users, the majority of which live in China. Users soon realized that just posting a picture of the event, even in a private group chat, could result in their accounts being permanently banned.
Chen, a Beijing resident who asked to be identified only by his last name, says he sent a photo of the protest to a group chat at 1:11 pm Beijing time on Thursday, and his account was permanently banned at 5:35 pm. The decision was made “according to the relevant Internet policies as well as laws and regulations,” the boilerplate notification from WeChat reads.
Another member of the group chat also tried to send the photo; his account was also banned, Chen later learned. “We knew it would cause a suspension, but we didn’t expect it to be permanent. I thought at the time I would only be banned for a few days,” he says.
Though there’s no official number on how many accounts were banned that day, there are numerous reports across Weibo and other social media platforms of WeChat users losing their accounts since the protest, some not knowing what they did wrong. Tencent didn’t respond to a request for comment from MIT Technology Review.
Being banned from WeChat isn’t exactly a trivial matter. It has a significant practical impact on individuals, as they are now blocked from using the many digital services—from the health QR code to online subscriptions—tied to their accounts. It takes days, if not weeks, to reestablish their digital connections with a new account.
The mass suspension also has an effect on society as a whole: The latest example of how swiftly China’s censorship machine works to silence dissent will only further chill these voices in the future. Protests like the latest one are already rare in China today, and many people won’t ever learn it happened.
Realtime censorship on WeChat
In China, the government holds social media platforms responsible for closely screening user-generated content. A 2017 regulation from China’s Cyberspace Administration targets online group chats and prohibits both platforms and users from “spreading content forbidden by laws and relevant regulations.” In 2021, popular social media platforms Douban and Weibo were publicly fined millions of yuans for allowing “illegal” content to still be seen on their platforms.
WeChat’s terms and conditions has a lengthy section on what content is banned on the platform, but it’s only specific when illustrating examples involving scams, spam, rumors, gambling, or pornography. It doesn’t give any examples of the politically sensitive content that it censors.
Still, it’s well known that sending politically sensitive content on WeChat, even in private exchanges, can result in account suspension. Similar waves of mass suspension also happened during other online protests, like in April when people were criticizing the inept government response to Omicron flare-ups in Shanghai.
In 2019, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab found that WeChat employs realtime, automatic censorship of chat images through a mix of text recognition, visual recognition, and duplicate file detection tools. One of the results is that, once the system identifies an image as subject to restriction, it can immediately block all users from sending the exact same image. This has sometimes driven users to get creative, using puns, distorted images, or hard-to-understand languages to mask what they want to share.
The real time censorship seems to have been applied to images from Sitong Bridge. Tina, a 38-year-old Beijing resident, sent a photo of the protest to a small group chat on Thursday, though she suspects the image didn’t even reach the other members. She later checked with her boyfriend, who is also in the group, and confirmed that he couldn’t see any photo of the protest. Nevertheless, Tina’s WeChat account was permanently banned hours later. (Tina asked to be identified by her English name to protect her identity.)
“The cyber confessional”
Once a WeChat account is permanently banned, there aren’t many ways to appeal the decision. Calling the designated customer service hotline usually just gets you hours of wait time; the in-app appeals process only returns a generic response that concludes “the restrictions cannot be removed.”
So over the past few years, users who are desperate to get their accounts back have turned to other social media platforms where Tencent has corporate accounts.
On Weibo, there were two “super topics,” a Weibo community feature that builds on a specific hashtag: “腾讯客服 (Tencent customer service)” and “腾讯人工客服 (Tencent human customer service).” Together, the two topics had over 130,000 posts where users asked, begged, or condemned Tencent in hopes it would give their accounts back.
These posts dated back to 2017, the year after Weibo introduced the super topic feature, but more than half of the posts were published in 2022. There was one account that persistently wrote to Tencent almost every day since July 26.
Use of the super topics spiked before Weibo removed both topics on the morning of October 14, just a day after the protest. MIT Technology Review examined and archived some of the posts before they were taken down. Weibo didn’t respond to a request for comment. After Weibo removed the two super topics, some users moved to a different super topic, “Tencent,” or resolved to simply tagging Tencent’s corporate accounts.
The surge of posts on Thursday attracted attention from other Weibo users, who named the missives “cyber confessionals,” since users often lay out what they think they did wrong in order to ask Tencent for a second chance; WeChat users are usually not given a detailed explanation for their ban.
But some of the users knew, or suspected, that their account ban was triggered by posting politically sensitive content. “I called the customer service phone number but they didn’t tell me what violated the rules. After self-examination, I found it was because I reposted improper photos,” reads one of the posts on Weibo.
Others were less clear about what happened, yet ready to admit their mistakes anyway. “I personally don’t think I’ve sent any harmful information, but if it really was because I did, I’m very sorry and will be cautious with my words and actions in the future,” reads another.
Not all people who posted under these hashtags were banned for political censorship. Some say they spammed too many people or promoted counterfeit products; others had no clue about what happened.
What most of the posts share is a sense of desperation. As WeChat has grown to be the super app that’s used in almost all aspects of life, having your primary account banned can be devastating. The Weibo posts describe how having their WeChat accounts banned made it difficult for people to get messages from colleagues, potential employers, or family members. Some write they are now on the brink of depression.
Meanwhile, Tencent’s customer service Weibo accounts only posted robotic responses under these posts asking them to provide more information. Two Weibo users told MIT Technology Review that posting under the hashtag didn’t help their appeals process at all.
Life after WeChat
Being banned from WeChat turns you into a ghost on the ubiquitous platform. “After losing WeChat, it feels like you lost connection to the world,” says Chen. “Even though you can still log into your WeChat account, read the messages others sent you and the group messages, and make digital payments, you can’t interact with them or reply to them.”
WeChat started allowing banned users to export their contacts in 2020, so if they choose to register a new account and start over, they can add their friends back one by one. But for most WeChat users who have had the app for over a decade, this means adding thousands of contacts manually and explaining to them what they did to trigger the ban.
Chen used his old account for 11 years and had over 1,400 contacts. It took him several hours to add back 500 contacts from his back-up account. “When I was adding contacts back, I was questioned if I was a scammer and the person called me to confirm. If I don’t have this person’s number or other confirmation methods, maybe they will straightaway refuse to befriend me,” Chen says. Then, there’s also the subscriptions, bookmarked content, public accounts he follows, and all other information tied to his WeChat account that he needs to migrate too.
On Friday, after the discussion of the protest had ebbed, many WeChat users were discovering who among their friends were banned or helping their friends spread their new WeChat handles. A 2020 article that offered a helpful checklist on what to do after being banned by WeChat gained at least 70,000 views overnight.
News of the suspensions obviously had a chilling effect too, as people weighed whether to talk about the protest when it was now clear it could get their accounts banned. By holding people’s access to digital services hostage, the government was able to obstruct the spread of information and increase its control.
Not everyone is willing to become a hostage. While Tina has heard about the posts on Weibo begging Tencent for help, that’s not what she wants to do. She understands the severity of political censorship and doesn’t believe posting will help.
So far, she has only told her close contacts about what happened and plans to try living her life without a WeChat account, at least for a little while. She has always felt she spent too much time on social media apps anyway—maybe this forced leave could be a detox experience.
“Many people were registering their second accounts yesterday. But I told them I won’t. I want to give it a try. If, let’s say, I can still live my life normally without WeChat, I think I can choose not to register another account,” she says. “I don’t think an individual should be bound so close with [WeChat] together.”