News and Views on Tibet

After travel ban, China blocks Tibetans from Kalachakra on WeChat

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By Tenzin Monlam

DHARAMSHALA, JAN 11: After restrictions on Tibetans from Tibet to attend the Kalachakra initiation given by the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, China has now resorting to cyber policing on WeChat, the most widely used micromessaging app owned by Tencent, a Chinese company.

A new study by Munk School of Global Affairs shows that China has blocked Kalachakra related keywords from WeChat, enabling keyword filtering for users with accounts registered with Mainland China phone numbers.

“Censorship of keywords is not transparent and no notice is given to a user if their message is blocked. A message with a keyword that is blocked simply does not appear,” said the report published by the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based interdisciplinary laboratory.

The report also highlighted that the app has put in more efforts and ‘higher level of keyword blocking’ on group chats, which could be due to nature of the ‘semi-public sphere of online discussion groups’.

It also cited that group chat is subjected to more scrutiny since ‘messages can reach wider audiences in group chats’ and ‘potentially be used to organize protests and other public mobilizations.’

The report found out that if keywords like ‘Dalai Lama’ and ‘Kalachakra’ are sent individually, the users in China would receive it. However, keywords combination of ‘Kalachakra’ + ‘Dalai Lama’ + ‘Tibetan’ is blocked without any notice.

The keywords filtration is applied to Tibetan, English, Chinese and Hindi. Mentioning of ‘Dalai Lama’ + ‘January 3’ + Kalachakra is also blocked. In Hindi, the filter applies to ‘Bodh Gaya’.

This is not the first time Wechat has blocked or monitored Tibet related keywords. Tibetans were arrested in the past for sharing messages, songs, and photos related to the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, who China reviles as a ‘separatist’. Contents related to Tibetan culture are also seen as spreading ‘anti-China’ sentiment.

“The blocking of Kalachakra related keywords demonstrates that censorship on WeChat is dynamic and keyword lists are updated in response to current events. The communication blockage on WeChat, shows that the restrictions on the Tibetans offline are mirrored online,” the report concluded.

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