China Tightens ‘Great Firewall’ by Blocking Skype

color photo of a Chinese man in the city of Wuhan, toting a yoke with two handmade carrying baskets in one hand and a smartphone in the other
Wuhan, China, 2016 (Eric Krüger via Flickr [cropped])
China's state security apparatus nixes Microsoft's Skype app as part of the government's ongoing crackdown on free expression.

The People’s Republic of China’s crackdown on the video- and phone-chat app Skype offers further evidence of what some call China’s “Great Firewall” of censorship.

On November 21, the New York Times reported that Apple had eliminated Skype from its app store in China.

An Apple spokeswoman said the company acted after the Chinese Ministry of Public Security notified it that “a number of voice over internet protocol apps do not comply with local law.”

Writing for the Times, correspondent Paul Mozur depicted the app’s removal as part of “a decades-long push by China’s government to control and monitor” its citizens online.

People can still use Skype in China, according to the article.

But Microsoft, which owns Skype, also removed the app from its store in China, and major third-party Chinese app stores for Android users aren’t carrying the Skype app, either.

Writes Mozur:

While China has long wielded the most sophisticated and comprehensive internet controls in the world, under President Xi Jinping it has upped the ante, squelching most major foreign social networks and messaging apps one at a time.

Earlier this autumn, the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp was hit by blockages in China, becoming the latest in a long line of products to be rendered unusable by Chinese government filters. Others include Gmail, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Telegram and Line.

Beijing appears to have disabled these apps because they generally feature encryption options that make messages harder for the government to monitor. Such products also often run afoul of government rules that require the use of real-name identification for each and every account.

photo of a young Chinese vendor at the Nanning Bird and Flower Market in Nanning, China, squatting next to his sweet-potato cart, using his cell phone
China’s burgeoning tech market: A sweet potato vendor in Nanning, China, studies his cell phone (timquijano via Flickr)

China’s censorship of such products fits into its wider suppression of human rights in general.

According to Amnesty International, the Chinese government continues to detain and harass lawyers and dissidents, demolish houses of worship, suppress ethnic minorities, and arrest journalists.

Blocking popular Western apps helps China drive users toward homegrown apps such as WeChat, a product of the Chinese tech giant Tencent.

CNBC recently reported Tencent to be the first Asian tech company valued at more than $500 billion.

WeChat boasts nearly 1 billion users, according to a September 25 Times piece by Keith Bradsher.

Bradsher noted that WeChat has “close ties to the government” and had sent a message to users “reminding them that it complied with official requests for information.”

In China at least, an Orwellian police state and an expanding tech market can peacefully coexist. As long as the latter never forgets who’s boss.

For more on China’s “Great Firewall,” read these Times stories:

“Skype Vanishes From App Stores in China, Including Apple’s”

“China Blocks WhatsApp, Broadening Online Censorship”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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