China's internet censors appeared on Tuesday to have blocked or disrupted the main functions of the WhatsApp social media app, amid a nationwide clampdown on social media in the run-up to a five-yearly congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook and offers end-to-end encryption, isn't as popular as its homegrown counterpart WeChat among China's more than 730 million internet users, but has been more resistant to government censorship until now.
Technology news site TechCrunch said it has received reports that while many users lost access beginning Sunday night, some in mainland China can still send and receive WhatsApp messages, adding that WhatsApp declined to comment on the blockage.
WhatsApp’s ability to send videos, photos, and files was blocked in China in July following the death in police custody of jailed Nobel peace laureate and prisoner of conscience Liu Xiaobo. However, the blocks were lifted a few weeks later.
The site said Skype and FaceTime, which are allowed to operate in China, don't have WhatsApp's strong encryption features, and that the authorities fear encrypted messaging could be used by political dissidents organizing against the government.
An attempt by RFA to connect with a WhatsApp user by voice call surnamed Yu on Tuesday resulted in an intermittent connection.
"I can't send out text messages [via WhatsApp] now, and some of them I don't see," Yu told RFA. "A lot of people are complaining on the group chats, including commercial groups and rights activist groups."
"I am only able to call you right now if I use circumvention tools, but that takes quite a bit more effort."
A Hunan-based service user surnamed Ou said the app appeared to be blocked without the use of circumvention tools to get around the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.
"My friends are telling me that it's acting up, but I use circumvention tools, so I haven't experienced that," Ou said. "They are saying they haven't been able to use it for a few days now."
"Some are saying it's intermittent, while others are saying that nothing has gotten through for days."
Ou said he believes WhatsApp is being targeted because it is an overseas app.
"I think that they are blocking WhatsApp because it's overseas communications software, so the Chinese Communist Party has no control over its servers," he said. "That's why they have to shut it down."
A technology researcher surnamed You said he had had a similar experience with the app since the start of the week, indicating that the authorities had the power to interfere with its operation.
He said government censors are also in full control of homegrown circumvention tools, such as virtual private networks, or VPNs.
"Some free circumvention tools are actually supplied by the government, so that it is very easy for them to switch them off after you have come to rely on them," You said.
"Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, such as speeding up information flows, but there are always weaknesses," he said.
Allegations of corruption
Guangdong-based service user surnamed Zeng said he believes the government particularly fears WhatsApp because of exiled billionaire Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok, who has repeatedly made allegations of corruption among the highest echelons of China's leadership via social media.
"I think they want to [stop] Guo Wengui's podcasts and videos from making their way back to mainland China," Zeng said. "The power struggle ahead of the 19th Party Congress is particularly fierce, and now Guo Wengui is blowing the whistle, which could prompt a split in the Chinese Communist Party."
"That's why they are suppressing information about him even more strictly than they do with [the] June 4, [1989 massacre]."
The interference with WhatsApp comes after China's powerful Cyberspace Agency fined Tencent, Baidu, and Twitter-like Weibo the maximum penalty under the country’s new cybersecurity law for hosting fake news, porn, and other "illegal content."
Tencent’s messaging app WeChat, the homegrown version of WhatsApp, was slapped with the fine after it "failed to fulfill its management duty" in stopping users from posting banned content, Shanghai-based news website The Paper reported.
Baidu’s online forum and Weibo were similarly sanctioned for "failing to prevent the spread of harmful information," it said.
Veteran Hebei-based journalist Zhu Xinxin said the aim of the ongoing social media crackdown is to stifle any form of public dissent ahead of the Communist Party congress which opens in Beijing on Oct. 18.
"The Chinese Communist Party wants to make sure the population is too frightened to utter a word of dissent or disseminate any information ahead of the 19th Party Congress," Zhu said.
"They see an increase in the number of so-called unstable factors in society."
Reported by Xin Lin and Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.