COVID19 originated in a country where censorship and surveillance are the government’s top priorities. These priorities were established in China’s response to the pandemic. The country was put under lockdown, and communications relating to the virus were heavily censored. Critics of China’s government note that this censorship may have created a difficult situation for those attempting to communicate about the virus, possibly even leading to more cases of the novel coronavirus as the throttle of communication prevented equal access to knowledge that may have helped to prevent its spread.
How Apps Work in China
Any app that reaches the Play Store or App Store in China must meet strict criteria imposed by the Chinese government. One of these criteria is government access to all information and data gathered by or transmitted through the app. There is no such thing as mobile phone or internet privacy in China, and that is precisely why privacy based communication apps are never made available for Chinese citizens to download.
Communication apps like WeChat can only exist on the government’s terms. This means that anything transmitted through the app can be collected and reviewed. All communications are subject to censorship for any reason the Chinese government may see fit.
Evaluators are unable to gain access to the remote servers China uses to censor communications, but simple A/B tests seem to help determine what is being censored. Test messages can be sent through apps, and some of them never reach their destination. The types of messages being blocked or flagged are usually critical of the government. In recent times, these communications pertained to COVID19.
WeChat’s Relationship with the Chinese Government
WeChat is owned by a company called Tencent. Tencent was founded in Shenzhen. That’s why Tencent had no problem launching its app in the Chinese marketplace. They were already equipped to handle the specifications put in place by the government, and their app was ready to roll without any complications.
Tencent claims that they do not facilitate the censorship or monitoring of communications via WeChat. It is not possible that Tencent is telling the truth, based on the fact that they’re allowed to operate in China and that researchers have proved countless times that WeChat messages including content that the government may find objectionable are never allowed to transmit through the app. Despite their claims, simple testing and their operation in accordance with Chinese law automatically disproves their assertion.
Censorship of the Pandemic
Citizen Lab is back at it again. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab dedicates a significant portion of its research resources to online privacy. Citizen Lab ran the tests that discovered pandemic censorship through WeChat. Words and phrases relating to Lei Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who informed citizens about COVID19 without government approval, were immediately censored. Most words and phrases pertaining to COVID19, including keywords relating to the announcement the Chinese government made to the American government about the virus weeks before they even told their own citizens, were also blocked.
As the pandemic progressed, so did the blocks. Messages using keywords pertaining to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Red Cross, and the World Health Organization were also blocked. In essence, the Chinese government was attempting to prevent any credible information regarding best practices, deaths relating to COVID19, and global case totals from reaching the population.
The Chinese government wanted to control the narrative and give the impression that their efforts to contain the virus and practices for intervention were the best. They weren’t, and all credible data and reporting out of China showed that their process was not working. Mandated quarantine camps were undersupplied and dangerous. People were still dying. China cared more about the optics than the reality. Their hold over WeChat was instrumental in keeping people throughout China from knowing how tremendously their government had failed them.
Living Free in China
There is no way to live free in China. The entire country is structured to dissolve privacy for everyone. With facial recognition cameras on every corner, a requirement to register to access the internet, a complete cutoff from global social platforms, and mandatory spying capabilities built into every virtual service, the government has made it apparent that privacy and freedom are the perceived enemy of the state.
The only way to enjoy any semblance of freedom in China is to circumvent the government entirely. The only way to keep your private communications private (or to even access Facebook or YouTube within China) is via VPN. A VPN like TorGuard provides the highest level of encryption, allowing users to bypass government blocks and communicate without automated censorship or undue scrutiny.