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China blocks WhatsApp services as censors tighten grip on internet

China operates the world’s largest censorship system, blocking thousands of websites including popular platforms such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube and a host of foreign news outlets.

world Updated: Jul 19, 2017 18:20 IST
The Guardian
The Guardian
Hong Kong
WhatsApp,Communist Party,President Xi Jinping
WhatsApp is seen with other mobile apps on a smartphone.(AP File)

China has partially blocked the popular messaging service WhatsApp, as authorities tighten their grip on the internet ahead of a major leadership reshuffle in Beijing.

Photo, video and voice messages sent by the Guardian from Beijing were all blocked on Wednesday, but text messages were not affected. Dozens of users in China complain of a total ban on sending any type of messages on WhatsApp.

The ban comes as Chinese officials are preparing for a twice-a-decade leadership shuffle later this year, with various factions within the Communist Party jockeying for control of key positions and President Xi Jinping likely to further consolidate power.

The company declined to comment.

China operates the world’s largest censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, blocking thousands of websites including popular platforms such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube and a host of foreign news outlets.

Xi, who came to power five years ago, has pushed for tighter government controls on what information Chinese citizens inside the country can access in the name of “cyber sovereignty”. Recent months have seen Beijing restrict live streaming video apps, online video content, celebrity news and VPNs.

In China, WhatsApp pales in popularity compared with homegrown messaging service WeChat, which boasts more than 900m users. But the American app is increasingly being used by Chinese concerned about privacy or those communicating with friends or business contacts abroad.

While WhatsApp encrypts all messages, WeChat conversations are routinely monitored.

“It would not be surprising to find that everything on WhatsApp gets blocked, forcing users in China to use unencrypted, monitored and censored services like WeChat,” a Chinese censorship researcher known only by the pseudonym Charlie Smith, told the Associated Press.

Before this week’s ban, WhatsApp was the only service owned by Facebook still accessible within China. The popular social network has been blocked since ethnic riots in China’s far west in 2009 and Instagram was banned during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss, has made a high-profile push to get the company’s services unblocked, showering praise on Xi and other Chinese officials, but has little to show for his efforts so far.

First Published: Jul 19, 2017 18:20 IST