Hopes that relations between China and the US might become less hostile once Donald Trump had exited the White House were dashed on the evening of President Joe Biden’s inauguration when reports emerged of a lawsuit launched by a group of Californians against Tencent.
The plaintiffs allege that Tencent’s WeChat mobile app has censored and surveilled them and shared their data with Chinese authorities.
The Washington Post reports that the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, claims Tencent’s practices violate the plaintiffs’ free-speech and private rights and enriches Tencent at the expense of California WeChat users.
“The case is another sign of the mounting scrutiny of WeChat, a popular communication tool in China that is also used by millions of Mandarin speakers around the globe,” said the Washington Post.
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The Trump administration had tried to ban WeChat on the grounds that it posed a national security threat because it collects “vast swaths” of data on users and offers the Chinese Communist Party an avenue for censoring or distorting information.
Although the former administration abandoned that attempt political analysts believe some version of it might be resuscitated by the Biden administration.
In their lawsuit the Californian plaintiffs say they “feel real fear that the [Chinese] Party-state or its agents will retaliate against them or their family and that, as a result, they self-censor, despite the fact that they live in California”.
The lawsuit’s list of allegations include that Tencent has turned over Californian WeChat users’ data and communications to Chinese authorities, censored and surveilled WeChat users in the state, and suspended and blocked their accounts after they have posted material critical of China.
They also allege that Tencent profited by using their data and communications to improve the company’s censorship and surveillance algorithms.
According to The Washington Post Chinese authorities require Tencent to heavily censor WeChat inside China.
Posts about Chinese politics and many other topics disappear when they are sent to or from a China-registered account.
“Chinese authorities have used the app to monitor political dissidents and other critics, some of whom have been detained by police or sentenced to prison for their communications,” said The Washington Post.
South Africa’s Naspers, which is the single largest Tencent shareholder with a 31% stake worth over $145 billion (close to R2.2 trillion), told Moneyweb on Thursday that it would not comment on the legal action in the US.
The lawsuit will draw attention to growing concerns about the Chinese government’s ability and willingness to monitor individuals outside of China. Last month the US Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a complaint against a Chinese citizen and former Zoom employee Jin Xinjiang for allegedly surveilling and disrupting certain Zoom users (insider and outside China) on behalf of Chinese police and state security agents.
Jin’s bosses at Zoom appear to have known about his activities.
In 2019, three years after Jin joined Zoom’s office in Hangzhou, eastern China, Zoom’s online services were blocked much as Facebook, Google and Twitter are blocked.
In its response to the DoJ, Zoom said the shutdown caused significant disruption for its clients wanting to communicate with partners in China.
In response to the shutdown Jin was appointed Zoom’s liaison person with the Chinese government and the company’s services were promptly unblocked. But in return, according to the DoJ, Zoom had to proactively report and give the Chinese authorities early warnings about “hot illegal incidents”.
The UK’s Financial Times reports that Jin told Zoom colleagues that in addition to flagging discussions relating to hot illegal incidents, the Chinese government “also want me to provide them with some detailed lists of our daily monitoring, such as Hong Kong demonstrations … there were some things that were difficult to determine whether they were legal or illegal, and they [the Chinese government] would help to determine them,” said Jin.