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California WeChat Users Sue Tencent Over Fear of Chinese Censors

Edvard Pettersson
·2 min read

(Bloomberg) -- A group of California WeChat users sued Tencent Holdings Ltd., the Chinese owner of the messaging and payment app, for allegedly violating their right to privacy by surveilling and censoring their communications.

Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a group promoting transition to Democracy in China, and six anonymous WeChat users said comments made using WeChat that can be perceived as critical of the Chinese government have led to the users’ accounts being frozen, causing them to be cut of from friends and relatives in China as well as their business clients in the U.S.

“All this chills constitutionally protected speech,” according to the complaint filed Friday in California state court in San Jose. “Indeed, many WeChat users have told CPIFC that they feel real fear that the 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.”

WeChat is the most used social media app among Chinese-speaking people in part because China blocks other apps, such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s also essential for Chinese-speaking people in California who need it to communicate with friends and relatives in China as well as to do business within the Chinese-speaking community, according to the complaint.

One of the anonymous California plaintiffs, a practitioner of traditional Chinese massage, allegedly had his WeChat account frozen for 42 days after he made a comment about the coronavirus pandemic last year, according to the complaint. As a result, he wasn’t able to communicate with his clients and lost about $500 a day, according to the complaint.

“The experience left him a changed man,” CPIFC said. “He now feels a deep sense of fear when using WeChat, aware that one stray comment might result in a repeat of the foregoing events.”

The Trump administration last year unsuccessfully sought to remove WeChat from mobile app stores in the U.S. and impose other restrictions that another U.S. users’ group said amounted to an outright ban. According to the administration, Tencent is intertwined with the Chinese Communist Party, which can use the app to collect users’ data and spy on them.

The California WeChat users want to pursue their claims as a class action and seek a court order to allow them to use the app without politically motivated censorship and surveillance.

Representatives of Tencent couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on the lawsuit.

The case is Citizen Power Initiatives for China v. Tencent America LLC, 21CV375169, California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara.

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