China’s crackdown on prostitution just shut down 20 million WeChat accounts

Police inspect a massage parlor in Shandong province.
Police inspect a massage parlor in Shandong province.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Chinese internet giant Tencent has closed 20 million accounts on its messaging app WeChat, 5% of the total, because they offered prostitution services, according to Chinese state media, who dubbed the campaign operation “Thunder Strike.”

The move is part of a wider government campaign to create a “healthy cyberspace,” which has included cracking down on pornography and salacious fan fiction, as well as the American television show The Big Bang Theory. Last month, when announcing that messaging app platforms like WeChat and others would be cooperating, Chinese authorities said police would “hold service providers responsible if they do not fulfill their duty.”

This campaign, we’ve pointed out, may have as much to do with getting rid of smut as it does with reminding the country’s growing privately owned internet companies to toe the government line. Pursuing prostitution may simply be the best way to rein in the most successful social media giants.

Prostitution, which is technically illegal but largely condoned and rampant in China, has been increasingly moving from red-light districts on to the internet and mobile phones, as it has around the world. And WeChat, which offers both private messaging and payment services, has been right at the center of that move—last year, a video went viral that showed a woman teaching another how to use WeChat and other chat apps to attract customers for sex work. Still, aside from the arrest of 11 people in an alleged prostitution ring operating on WeChat last year, there have been no widespread crackdowns on selling sex on the messaging platform until now.

So what’s changed? The fact that millions of Chinese internet users are turning to WeChat to post their thoughts, chat, and keep up with the news—thoughts and news that might not be approved by China’s censors—may be one reason for more scrutiny. China’s censorship regime is still figuring out how to keep tabs on the increasingly popular chat app, which is taking internet users away from the microblog Weibo, a platform authorities have spent years monitoring and censoring relatively successfully.

WeChat isn’t the only messaging app to come under criticism for providing a platform for solicitation, but with 396 million monthly active users (pdf), it is China’s most popular. In March, at least a dozen accounts by outspoken bloggers that debate political and social issues were shuttered, and in April, a chat group made up of scholars and activists working on human rights in China was deleted.