WhatsApp is not available in China. Some people, especially tourists, manage to use it — but they do so through virtual private networks (VPNs), just the way they use Twitter or Facebook by hooking into servers based outside China. By default, the Chinese Firewall — as the country's internet filtering and blocking apparatus is popularly known — restricts WhatsApp. And using it with the help of VPNs is no fun. It's cumbersome, and so tedious and unreliable that most people, especially tourists, don't bother with it.
The Great Wall of China. Followed by the Great Firewall of China. (Photo: Reuters)
Instead of WhatsApp, Chinese masses use WeChat for instant messaging.
It has almost 1 billion active users (basically all Chinese adults are on it) and people not only chat through it but also use this app to pay for goods. WeChat is an app where, just like Weibo and other similar Chinese apps and social media sites, messages and content are monitored by the government. When users sign up for WeChat, they have to use their real names. There is no end-to-end encryption in the app, its chats are stored probably indefinitely — and are accessible to government officials even when a user deletes them.
In a way, WeChat is a surveillance nightmare. Nothing is truly private on it.
To me, a citizen of the world's biggest democracy, WeChat sounds scary — it's Orwellian. WeChat is everything that stands in contrast to Western liberalism, to the democracy of India. In a way, it is everything that stands in contrast to the ideals, at least in theory, that underpin the internet: anonymity, privacy, choices, freedom of speech, decentralisation.
Yet, it is not WeChat but WhatsApp that is in the news for all the wrong reasons now.
There have been a number of incidents in India in the last few months where we have seen blood-thirsty mobs lynching people. In almost all these incidents, WhatsApp has been an enabler in the spread of rumours and fake information that whipped these mobs into a frenzy.
WeChat has many things that are wrong with it — but so far, it hasn't been implicated in lynchings in China. It hasn't led people to kill their neighbours, although it is possible that it may have helped the government jail or punish a few activists.
The question then is this: What if the Chinese are right about the internet and how it needs to be used by the masses, especially those who have never earlier dealt with a medium as fluid, as dynamic, as disruptive as the internet and instant messaging?
What if WeChat — where every message can be read by the government — is the way to go about this as far as an instant messaging app is concerned, not WhatsApp that enables people to say anything, and that includes malevolent lies, privately, without any repercussions?
Over the years, among other arguments that China has made about its internet surveillance and restrictions, one has been that it doesn't want a web that destabilises Chinese society. So China wants to control web services available in the country — and the services it can't control, it doesn't allow. There is no Facebook in China. No Google services. No Google's Android, although Xiaomi's Android exists. No Wikipedia. No WhatsApp. No YouTube.
No WhatsApp, no Facebook in China: The use of WhatsApp right now in India is proving the Chinese right.
It's true that this argument for controlled internet is more of a veiled measure aimed at suppressing criticism of the Chinese government on websites and within apps. But what if the Chinese are onto something when they say that the masses in the country, who are not used to a medium like the internet, can neither handle porn, nor an unchecked flow of information?
In a way, the use of WhatsApp right now in India is proving the Chinese right.
India has a number of internet users who are coming online just now. For these millions of new internet users, services like WhatsApp and Facebook are not only their first brush with web services but probably their first experience with an interactive media. And they can't handle it, if the lynchings and the kind of messages that spread through WhatsApp groups are any indication.
India is still learning to handle the internet. Does it need a guiding hand? (Photo: Reuters)
It is true that wholly blaming WhatsApp for India's lynching trouble is ignoring the core problem, which is lawlessness. But in a country like India, where even the law is often a bystander, unfettered access to something like WhatsApp is dividing society. The unchecked flow of information, instead of clearing miscommunications, is feeding people's biases. Information, maybe because it is raw and instant, is not leading people to act wise. Instead, it is forcing them to react, often unwisely.
I don't believe that the Chinese internet is the best internet. And I think in the long term — but then, in the long term we are all dead — it is not sustainable.
However, I also feel that in a country like India, complex with a society that is multi-layered, a messaging platform that doesn't make its users accountable for what they say or share is a big problem. Maybe the best way is somewhere in the middle of what the Chinese propose and what companies like Facebook, which is the owner of WhatsApp, are delivering. Here is hoping that India can find this middle ground fast — before social media and instant messaging make tensions in the country explode like what happened in Myanmar and Sri Lanka recently.