WeChat suspends new user registrations to comply with Chinese laws

By Robert Scammell

Tencent-owned WeChat has suspended new user registrations in mainland China while it upgrades its security to comply with “relevant laws and regulations”. It comes amid a continued regulatory crackdown against Chinese tech giants.

WeChat, called Weixin in China, said in a statement that “registration services will be restored after the upgrade is complete, which is expected in early August”.

The instant messaging app is the most popular mobile app in China with more than one billion monthly active users. The so-called “super app” is used for messaging, mobile payments, gaming and other financial services that makes it an integral part of day-to-day life in China.

Tencent has a $605.2bn market cap, according to GlobalData.

It is unclear which law WeChat is conforming to, or why new registrations will need to be suspended for roughly two weeks.

Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET, told Verdict that security upgrades are typically designed to cause minimal disruption, making WeChat’s registration downtime unusual.

He speculated that the registration process could have “been noted as a weak point in [WeChat’s] system” and that by “halting new sign-ups it might be able to focus its energy on creating a stronger user registration model”.

Verdict has contacted Tencent for comment.

WeChat’s suspension of new user registrations comes amid a broader crackdown by Chinese regulators on tech companies.

Most recently it resulted in China’s internet watchdog blocking ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing from registering new users. The Cyberspace Administration of China and Ministry of State Security also visited Didi’s offices earlier this month as part of a security probe.

China is also in the process of beefing up its data and privacy laws. It is drafting a Personal Information Protection Law, aimed at making tech companies store user data securely.

And in September it is due to implement its Data Security Law, under which companies processing “critical data” must conduct risk assessments. Those processing data deemed to affect Chinese national security must submit an annual review.

Michael Orme, GlobalData analyst and China expert, told Verdict that the disagreement falls into the wider battle for power between the Chinese state and Chinese tech behemoths.

He said that while there are concerns from the state, particularly in the financial sector, Tencent and Alibaba are “crucial players in the evolution of the Communist Party’s mid-term economic policy”.

This is in part due to their funding of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud, he said.

He added that that the likely outcome is a “more heavily regulated Tencent that almost certainly will be able to add new mainland users again”.

Cody Barrow, director of threat intelligence at global threat intel company EclecticIQ told Verdict it comes across as a “control play” from the Chinese state and that it “marks a departure from the Silicon Valley model of open entrepreneurship”.

The former US Cyber Command intelligence officer added: “Tencent is really on the forefront of the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to control information flow, so I can’t imagine this is only about signups. They must be a special target behind the scenes.”