China has launched a month-long crackdown on hugely popular instant messaging apps in a bid to purge them of "illegal and harmful information" and to fend off "hostile forces," official media reported on Wednesday.
Many Chinese netizens rely on the WeChat app, and others like it, as an unofficial news channel for information that would usually be censored by the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known colloquially as the Great Firewall (GFW).
"We will firmly fight against infiltration from hostile forces at home and abroad," state-run news agency Xinhua quoted Beijing's State Internet Information Office (SIIO) as saying.
Anyone "spreading rumors" or information linked to violence, terrorism, or pornography or using the WeChat or similar apps for fraudulent purposes would be targeted in the month-long crackdown, Xinhua said.
"Some people have used [these services] to distribute illegal and harmful information, seriously undermining public interests and order in cyberspace," it quoted the SIIO as saying.
WeChat, owned by Chinese Internet giant Tencent, currently has more than 800 million users. The service allows users to send text, photos, videos and voice messages over mobile devices.
It has more than twice as many monthly active users, 396 million, as the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, but most users send their messages privately rather than sharing them publicly.
The government's campaign will target big-name public accounts on instant messaging services who are capable of spreading information on a large scale and mobilizing followers, the SIIO said in a statement.
Besides private accounts used for communication among friends, family and acquaintances, many organizations, companies, and high-profile individuals use the WeChat service.
Service providers will be held responsible "if they do not fulfill their duty," the SIIO statement said.
'Far beyond' anti-terrorism measures
Sichuan-based rights activist and network expert Pu Fei said authorities were using "anti-terrorism" rationale for the clampdown as an excuse for a politically motivated purge of government critics.
"To carry out surveillance of WeChat and other messaging platforms amounts to an invasion of individual privacy," Pu said.
"This goes far beyond anti-terrorism measures."
The government is calling on members of the public to report any users who violate the guidelines, Xinhua said.
And "instant messaging companies should ... introduce practices to identify and clear rumors on their applications," the SIIO statement said.
It said a total of seven service providers, including WeChat, Momo, Mi Talk, and Yixin, have agreed to cooperate with the authorities and launch internal inspections of users and content.
The campaign, overseen jointly by the SIIO, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the Ministry of Public Security, comes after service providers and officials held a meeting to discuss the issue, the agency said.
Independent writer Ye Du said Tencent and other service providers had likely succumbed to intense political pressure during that meeting.
"It's pretty clear that the government saw that citizens ... were using WeChat and [other services] to share information, as well as in the area of citizen protests," Ye said.
"The Chinese government's method has always been to ensure that it retains control of all communications channels," he said. "This time, the Chinese government has launched a pre-emptive strike in a bid to clean up this information that is being shared on WeChat."
"This is just the beginning of China's controls over instant mobile messaging apps," Ye said. "We are likely to see many more such campaigns in future."
Wu Fei, professor in the school of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University in the southern city of Guangzhou, agreed.
"The last time it was the government propaganda department that did a clean-up operation, but ... there has clearly been a huge shift behind the scenes," Wu said.
"Back in March, all the propaganda department did was to ... shut down some account holders who didn't make the grade, but then they were allowed to reopen their accounts after a short time."
"This campaign will be the first, and in future there will be wave after wave of them," Wu said.
In January, a report from the government-backed China Internet Network Information Center showed a nine percent drop in the use of Twitter-like microblogging services in 2013 following an extended crackdown on social media, particularly big-name tweeters.
Of the respondents who reported having reduced their use of microblogging services, 37 percent said they had switched to WeChat instead, the report said.
China cracked down on a number of high-profile journalists and tweeters last year, including Chinese-American billionaire blogger Charles Xue, who regularly posted reform-minded comments on a variety of sensitive issues to 12 million followers.
On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive on Sept. 1 criminalizing online "rumor-mongering," in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.
Last year saw increasing levels of official control over freedom of expression, including criticisms of the government that were merely implied, the Hubei-based rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch said in a recent report.
Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.