Monday, May 16

China: dissidents banned from the WeChat app as the 2022 Olympics approach

Ahead of the Winter Olympics, Chinese dissidents complain they were sidelined from the country’s ubiquitous WeChat app as part of a usual tightening before big events .

In a hyperconnected country, being excluded from WeChat is equivalent to a kind of social death: the banned find themselves banned from messaging and payments and can no longer download the health pass which gives access to a number of shops and public transport.

Eight intellectuals or human rights activists told AFP that their WeChat account had been blocked or that they no longer had access to certain functions, such as group messages, since the beginning of December.

Tencent, the private group that manages the app, did not respond to questions on the subject.

The restrictions come as two activists have been arrested for inciting subversion: lawyer Xie Yang and writer Yang Maodong, while a third, lawyer Tang Jitian, has not been heard from for the month. last, while traveling to Beijing to participate in a human rights event at the EU delegation. His relatives assume he is being held incommunicado.

“This wave of closing WeChat accounts is brutal and unprecedented,” observes journalist Gao Yu, who has seen anomalies on her own account since December 20.

– ‘Immaculate facade’ –

The communist regime has a habit of blocking dissidents’ access to the internet or keeping them away from Beijing when major celebrations and anniversaries such as the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 approach.

The proximity of the Winter Olympics is no exception to the rule.

“The power wants to ensure that people do not cross the red line on the internet and profane the immaculate facade of the Winter Olympics”, comments researcher Yaqiu Wang, of the American association Human Rights Watch.

“The Olympics and their preparations are extremely sensitive times,” observes an activist, whose WeChat account has been subject to service restrictions twice in the past two months.

The preparation for the Games has already been accompanied by several controversies, in particular the temporary disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai, who in early November accused a former senior politician of having forced him to have sex.

Several Western countries, including the United States, have announced a “diplomatic boycott” of the Olympics, in order to denounce human rights violations in China, in particular those of the Uyghur Muslim minority.

– ‘Removed from public space’ –

In detail, the Beijing writer Zhang Yihe said she could no longer communicate with groups of friends on WeChat since January 8, nor could she post content on her wall.

Sociologist Guo Yuhua, from the prestigious Tsinghua University, confirmed that her account was permanently blocked the same day, while a famous law professor, He Weifang, said he suffered the same fate the next day.

“It’s like removing someone from the public space,” said Ms. Zhang.

When questioned, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) indicated in an email that it had “neither the mandate nor the ability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign state”.

The Lausanne institution “must remain neutral with regard to any political question”, he added.

In Beijing, the organizing committee of the Games assured AFP not to be aware of this information and to oppose “the mixing of politics and sport”.

Meanwhile, the ever-shrinking community of dissidents bemoans the curtailment of their freedoms under President Xi Jinping, who has been in power for nine years.

“The space for freedom of speech is shrinking day by day,” says jurist He Weifang.

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