Several Chinese internet users have posted fervent requests for access to their Wechat accounts after hundreds were banned for posts about a rare street protest in Beijing against President Xi Jinping. Some users were banned permanently after referring to an event that happened on Thursday in the capital that called for Xi’s impeachment.
It comes when the Communist Party meets for a five-yearly Congress to anoint Xi to a historic third term in power.
Excerpts From Handwritten Apologies
"I have really seriously reflected on my mistake, and I promise... I will definitely strictly abide by the guidelines," wrote one Beijing resident on Friday in a post on another Chinese social network that has since been deleted.
"I sincerely hope your company can unblock my account. In future, I will never post an inappropriate video or image again."
Another user who said their WeChat account had been banned permanently said: "I've been extremely anxious since it happened and regret my behavior."
"I've used this account for 10 years and there are many precious photos and messages from friends on it."
One WeChat user based in the southern city of Guangzhou told AFP their account had some functions temporarily restricted for 24 hours on Sunday after they shared photos in a chat group of posters expressing support for the Beijing protest.
"I can feel the isolation of not being able to like/respond/reply to group chat messages... and I feel even more sympathy for users who have been permanently banned," she said.
Beijing is on high alert for any disruption to the week-long Communist Party meeting, which began Sunday, with the city under a tight security blanket.
Video and photos shared on social media Thursday showed a lone protester draping two hand-painted banners off a bridge with slogans criticizing government policies on Covid and calling for the right to vote.
"No Covid tests, I want to make a living. No Cultural Revolution, I want reforms. No lockdowns, I want freedom. No leaders, I want to vote. No lies, I want dignity. I won't be a slave, I'll be a citizen," one banner read.
"Go on strike, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping," read another.
Police and security guards quickly swarmed the bridge. Volunteers were deployed to guard other pedestrian bridges across Beijing after the protest, while searches online for the incident were heavily censored.
Users are willing to go to great lengths to get their WeChat accounts back after being banned because they are crucial to their social and professional lives. The app occasionally requests handwritten apologies from users before unlocking their accounts; in those cases, the users have complied.
Xian Jingjing, a 21-year-old tech worker in the southwestern province of Sichuan, told Rest of World she was banned from WeChat in October 2021 after someone hacked into her account and posted spam messages from it. With the payment services disabled, Xian, a university student, could not even grocery shop alone.
After Xian appealed, Tencent’s customer service asked for a handwritten letter, which Xian drafted in her dorm room before carefully copying it onto a separate piece of paper. “I really understand what I did wrong now. I regret it very much,” her letter read. “Really, please give me a chance. You all work so hard. Thank you!”
Another WeChat user Wenmen in the central province of Hubei, told Rest of World her account was suspended in September after she took on a part-time job posting advertisements in chat groups. She also had to write a letter to reactivate her account.
Many others have posted images of handwritten letters filled with regret and gratitude on social media platforms. One user claimed their WeChat account was suspended for spamming others in a letter posted in 2021. "I fully recognize the error I committed. I'm so embarrassed," the writer wrote. "I deeply regret doing that. I humbly request your assistance, brothers and sisters in customer service, in unlocking it."
Some spoke in a more sentimental manner. According to a photo of their letter posted on Xiaohongshu in June, another person wrote, "If I could turn back time, I would do my best to treasure [this account]." Please trust a member of the Communist Youth League who made a mistake. I'm so sorry.
In the letter, the 22-year-old wrote that she had understood her wrongdoing thanks to the teachings of Tencent’s customer service officers. Wenwen said the last time she had written such letters was in secondary school when she was reprimanded for not paying attention in class.
Lotus Ruan, a researcher with the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, who has studied censorship on WeChat, told Rest of World that these letters showed that social media companies channel censorship onto individual users.
WeChat’s dominance in everyday life means users must comply with whatever it asks for. “WeChat has become such an integral part of Chinese users’ life, not only for Chinese living in China, but also for a lot of overseas students and Chinese diaspora,” Ruan said. “If you have the account banned, then it’s like taking away a big part of your identity.”
Tencent Declines Request For Comments.
It’s unclear if every WeChat user is eligible to retrieve their banned account by mere handwritten pleas. Many others have struggled even to make their apologies heard. Following the wave of account shutdowns over the recent Beijing protest, frustrated users flooded a Tencent hashtag on the microblogging site Weibo, begging the company to return their accounts. Internet users called the hashtag a “cyber confessional.”
Those who are unable to reactivate their accounts have taken to creating new ones and spending hours manually adding hundreds or thousands of contacts. Users and researchers claim that a chilling effect has been formed which prevents people from having political conversations on the platform due to the fear of being banned from WeChat once more.
Besides WeChat, users of Weibo and Alibaba’s secondhand marketplace, Xianyu, have also submitted handwritten letters pledging not to violate their policies to retrieve banned accounts, according to posts on social media platforms like Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili. Weibo and Alibaba did not respond to requests for comments