WeChat is the latest site blocked in Russia

The Russian telecoms watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has taken the unexpected step of blocking the Chinese social media app WeChat across the country

WeChat has been listed on the Roskomnadzor’s register of prohibited sites since 4th May and they were quoted in China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency as saying that Tencent, which operates WeChat, “did not provide the contact information necessary for registration with authorities”.

Tencent apologises

Tencent’s response has, again unusually, been upfront and frank in their failings. “We’re experiencing a block and we’re deeply sorry,” they said in a statement. “In accordance with internet regulations in Russia, [we] are required to notify relevant authorities of our activities upon request… As per these guidelines, we are in discussions with relevant authorities regarding the situation.”

The regulation to which they refer is Article 15.4 of Russia’s information, information technologies and information security laws which require all foreign social media sites to store the data of Russian users within Russia. It came into effect in 2015 and as we have reported previously, has already seen LinkedIn being blocked.

Other services which are currently unavailable include Blackberry Messenger and the LINE messenger service.

The step to block WeChat is a surprise given the recent closeness between China and Russia when it comes to online censorship. The Communist regime in China has introduced the most intrusive censorship and surveillance regime in the world and Russia is keenly trying to follow their lead.

Probably not political

However, as Russian-relations expert Cheng Yijun, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the South China Morning Post, this does not appear to have been as politically motivated as some other actions by the Roskomnadzor have been.

He said, “The issue should be a company legal or commercial event rather than [about the] Sino-Russian relationship.”

Indeed, he pointed out that there is a scheduled meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin later this month at China’s Forum on International Cooperation in Beijing. It seems highly unlikely that anything that might damage relations between the two countries would happen before that meeting.

Indeed, it seems likely that the groveling response from Tencent to the blocking of WeChat might be at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party who are keen that the issue doesn’t rock the boat with Russia in the slightest.

Unknown numbers affected

It is also unclear at this stage just how many users WeChat actually has in Russia. WeChat can boast around 889 million active users in China, but their willingness to hand over user data to government bodies and their compliance with Chinese censorship laws makes it very unpopular outside the country.

Indeed, most users outside China are likely to be ex-pats or friends of people within the country who use it to stay in touch in the absence of other safer services such as Facebook and Twitter. With Russia and China sharing a large border, it seems likely there will be some crossover, but it is impossible to say how many users are affected.

If readers are keen to access WeChat in Russia, we would firstly recommend they use another, far safer, social media platform which is not monitored by the Chinese regime.

But if you are not deterred, using a VPN such as IPVanish and ExpressVPN will unlock any site which is blocked in Russia, including WeChat and LinkedIn. Simply connect to a server in a country where the service is permitted (it doesn’t have to be China) and you will be able to log on and message as usual.