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Chinese Internet Users Lose Access to WeChat App After Beijing Protest

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Chinese censors are crippling access to the country’s do-everything app for some users as part of a campaign to kill discussion of a rare protest in Beijing, an escalation in the Communist Party’s drive to cleanse the country’s internet of even the whiff of dissent.

The crackdown came after two banners condemning Chinese leader Xi Jinping were hung from a busy highway bridge in the Chinese capital early Thursday afternoon—a rare act of defiance in the seat of Communist Party power that captivated the country’s social-media users.

Hours after images of the banners began to circulate online, a large number of users reported losing access to

WeChat,

a super app that has become virtually indispensable for daily life in China.

Hundreds of complaints posted in a customer-service forum run by WeChat’s owner, Tencent Holdings Ltd., indicated the suspensions were imposed after users posted or reposted images of the protest to their contacts. Some users offered desperate, if somewhat circumspect, apologies.

One user referred to “an incident this afternoon” and apologized for engaging in damaging behavior. “Please, I have been using this account for 10 years, with many messages and pictures—very precious to me,” the user wrote.

Two banners unfurled from a highway overpass in Beijing condemned Chinese President Xi Jinping and his strict Covid policies, in a rare display of defiance. The protest took place days before the expected extension of the leader’s tenure.

Another wrote of losing WeChat access around 3 p.m. on Thursday and confessed to having shared “images that contained inappropriate content.”

Some curious internet users asked to see the images many were alluding to. “You’d be better off knowing nothing about them,” one user responded.

By Friday evening, Tencent’s customer-services forum on

Weibo,

a

Twitter

-like social-media platform, was no longer accessible. Many users turned to a general forum run by Tencent to continue their petitions.

Tencent didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Beijing’s Public Security bureau didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Thursday’s protest, which depicted Mr. Xi as a “traitorous dictator,” was small but still shocking in a country where the space for dissent has shrunk almost to zero in recent years. The act of defiance was especially noteworthy for happening in Beijing, the country’s most tightly managed city, just days before a pivotal Communist Party gathering where Mr. Xi is all but certain to claim a norm-breaking third term as leader.

Even before Thursday’s incident, Chinese authorities had tightened their grip around online discourse to an unusual degree. An examination by The Wall Street Journal found the country’s most popular social-media platforms had been scrubbed of independent or negative content concerning Mr. Xi and many of the country’s other top officials, making it essentially impossible to gauge public opinion of the party’s leadership.

Authorities’ response to the protest online was swift and broad. Eric Liu, a former social-media censor in China who now works as an analyst with the censorship-focused website China Digital Times, said he wasn’t aware of such a large-scale locking of WeChat accounts in recent years.

For a WeChat user, the effect of losing access to the app can be vast. Hundreds of millions of Chinese use the app not just to keep in touch with family and friends but to hail taxis, buy train tickets, pay for groceries and manage their investments.

One Beijing-based user told the Journal he had shared a photo of the banners hanging off Beijing’s Sitong Bridge beneath a column of black smoke in a WeChat group of about 70 people just after 1 p.m. He offered no comment, he said, and neither did other users, though some responded with emojis.

Around 5 p.m., the user said, he received a notice from WeChat saying that his account had been restricted because he violated Chinese law and that the restriction wouldn’t be lifted. He said he was able to access the app’s digital-payments feature, but was cut off from all of its social functions. Someone else in the WeChat group who had shared a photo of the bridge also had his account similarly suspended, the user said.

“I expected to be blocked by WeChat for this, but I expected to be blocked for only a few days,” he said. “I was shocked when they told me my account was permanently suspended.”

The user said he had registered a new WeChat account with a different phone number and was in the process of rebuilding 11 years of connections lost with his previous account.

The appearance of the banners, which were removed later Thursday, in China’s most tightly managed city made the protest especially noteworthy.



Photo:

Jonathan Cheng/The Wall Street Journal

Some took to Twitter to air their complaints, likening the loss of WeChat to “digital death.” Twitter is blocked in China and only accessible to people there through virtual private networks, or VPNs, which means it is also largely out of reach of Chinese censors.

On Weibo, searches for “Sitong Bridge” and even “Beijing” yielded only a few generic results just as data from the platform showed a spike in traffic around both terms. Another term that yielded no results on Weibo was yongshi, which can be translated as “brave man” or “warrior,” a moniker some users had bestowed on the unknown protester.

Weibo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

One Shanghai-based WeChat user told the Journal he had his account frozen at 5 p.m. on Thursday after sharing a photo of the banners in two groups and found it hard to explain to his mother why he had to connect with her through a new account.

“She doesn’t understand. She thinks I’m barred because my thinking is extremist,” he said.

Still, he said, he didn’t regret posting the image because he himself had felt a strong urge to protest the government during an iron-fisted weekslong Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year.

“I felt solidarity with the warrior,” he said.

Write to Liza Lin at [email protected]

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