According to an announcement by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) of Russia on May 5, the country has placed the overseas version of the popular Chinese mobile app WeChat on a list of banned websites and apps, causing many WeChat users in Russia unable to access its normal functions. On May 11, the ban was released in an updated announcement on Roskomnadzor’s website, most likely as a result of Tencent’s efforts of communicating with Russian authorities to resolve the previous “different understandings of the regulations”. A Tencent company official wrote on a company microblog that they were “deeply sorry” for the block.
Some media commentators noted the irony with respect to China’s own restrictive regulations against foreign Internet content operators and internet censorship through the so-called “Great Firewall”. The ban has also been considered as a potential act made by Russia to add pressure to Beijing in economic negotiations.
WeChat is not the only communication & social networking app banned in Russia. The mobile social messaging platform of BlackBerry Messenger, developed by Canada’s RIM, has also been prohibited, as well as the instant communication software application LINE, developed by the Japanese unit of the South Korean Internet firm NHN. The ban was said to be a result of violation of Russia’s relevant regulations in Internet security management and information protection. According to these regulations, software operators are required to register with relevant Russian government offices and store uploaded user data in Russia.
Developed by Tencent, the largest Internet company in China and now the largest company in all of Asia, WeChat is a social media mobile application offering features including instant messaging, audio and video chatting, content sharing, e-commerce, and e-payment, among many other optional services. First released in 2011, WeChat has reached over 889 million monthly active users in 2016, while WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger combined had about 1 billion users. Unlike its western equivalents, 90% of WeChat users are Chinese, though its usage has grown in neighboring Asian countries.
Since Facebook and Twitter are not accessible in China mainland due to internet censorship, WeChat has few competitors and dominates the Chinese social media app market, providing a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Paypal functionality on mobile phones. It has deeply integrated itself into the everyday lifestyle of people in China in just a few scant years and has become a necessity for almost every Chinese smartphone or tablet owner. It is also the top mobile app among Chinese people travelling, studying and living abroad who use this app to stay in touch with family and friends at home, and for business communications and marketing. The blocking of WeChat in Russia, as reported by China State media, has “triggered wide complaints from the Chinese living in Russia, who said it has affected their daily life and work.” If the block continues, Chinese users in Russia may need to resort to using VPN (virtual private network) apps to access WeChat, much in the way foreigners are forced to use VPNs to access Facebook within China.
While Chinese users of WeChat in Russia may be frustrated by the ban, the relevant Russian internet regulations that prompted the ban are very similar to those already enforced in China. In fact, the Chinese implementation of internet regulation may have been the model of the recently imposed regulations in Russia. Last year, President Xi and President Putin signed a bilateral agreement that involved several internet regulation issues. It was reported that Moscow had begun to implement elements of China’s Great Firewall through the development of the “Red Web“.
Angela Lee writes at ChinaBuzz.co, an English-language blog that covers the hottest viral news in China.