The ban of Whatsapp in Chinese comes as the Chinese officials are preparing for a twice-a-decade leadership shuffle later this year, with various factions within the Communist party jockeying for control of key positions and president Xi Jinping likely to further consolidate power.
Photo, video and voice messages sent in from Beijing were all blocked on Wednesday, but text messages were not affected. Dozens of users in China complained of a total ban on sending any type of messages on WhatsApp
China has to some extent blocked the popular messaging service WhatsApp, as authorities tighten their grip on the internet ahead of a major leadership reshuffle in Beijing.
The block appeared randomly, similar to when Chinese authorities first banned Google’s Gmail in 2014 before instituting a total blackout.
China operates the world’s largest censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, blocking thousands of websites including popular platforms such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube and a host of foreign news outlets.
Xi, who came to power five years ago, has pushed for tighter government controls on what information Chinese citizens inside the country can access in the name of “cyber sovereignty”. Recent months have seen Beijing restrict live streaming video apps, online video content, celebrity news and VPNs.
In China, WhatsApp pales in popularity compared with homegrown messaging service WeChat, which boasts more than 900m users. But the American app is increasingly being used by Chinese concerned about privacy or those communicating with friends or business contacts abroad.
While WhatsApp encrypts all messages, WeChat conversations are routinely monitored.
Before this week’s ban, WhatsApp was the only service owned by Facebook still accessible within China. The popular social network has been blocked since ethnic riots in China’s far west in 2009 and Instagram was banned during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014.
Mark Zuckerberg, has made a high-profile push to get the company’s services unblocked, showering praise on Xi and other Chinese officials, but has little to show for his efforts so far.
Chinese authorities previously blocked messaging app Telegram after it became popular with the country’s human right lawyers.
China plans to block “unauthorized” virtual private networks, or VPNs, a common tool to evade censorship, starting in February 2018 and several domestic providers have already been forced to shut down.