How Ban On Chinese Apps ‘Separated’ Tibetan Exiles From Families

For Tibetans-in-exile, WeChat has been a primary mode of communication with their loved ones inside Tibet.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Tibet flag and WeChat logo with a ‘ban’ sign on it, used for representation.
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Recently, the Government of India's Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology banned 59 Chinese apps including WeChat, TikTok, Mi Community and UC browser, saying that they are prejudicial to India's sovereignty, integrity and national security. This one-of-a-kind blanket ban on Chinese technology companies comes in the midst of a larger demand to boycott Chinese products in the country.

The ban came a couple of weeks after similar warnings were issued by Indian intelligence, where the agencies red-flagged 52 apps linked with China – noting that the apps compromise user data and extract a large amount of personal data.

How WeChat Emerged As Primary Mode of Communication In Tibet

Indian intelligence agencies have been warning and reporting on threats from spyware in Chinese Android and iOS apps over the years, advising users to be cautious about data extraction and cyber espionage against India.

Calls for defending India's tech sovereignty has been issued even by the Indian armed forces, cautioning against the dangers of Chinese instant messaging apps.

The official announcement further stated that the recommendations made by the intelligence agencies were backed by the National Security Council, signalling the concurrence of India’s highest security agency on the threats posed by these apps to India's internal security, and their detrimental impact on data security. Indian netizens have welcomed the decision and further urged the government to take more substantial and effective measures.

Around 71 percent of Tibetan refugees in India use the instant messaging app WeChat, which is among the 59 banned apps. The world’s largest standalone messaging app – WeChat – is infamous for constantly refining its technology to monitor – and censor – content from its more than 1.17 billion monthly active users. However, with China banning foreign instant messaging and social media apps including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, WeChat – by default – emerged as the most viable line of communication.

For Tibetans in exile, over the years, WeChat has remained a primary mode of communication with their families and loved ones inside Tibet.
Snapshot
  • Around 71 percent of Tibetan refugees in India use the instant messaging app WeChat, which is among the 59 banned apps.
  • With China banning foreign instant messaging and social media apps including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, WeChat – by default – emerged as the most viable line of communication.
  • For Tibetans in exile, over the years, WeChat has remained a primary mode of communication with their families and loved ones inside Tibet.
  • Although heavily censored and monitored, WeChat, among Tibetans, was symbolic of our continued wish to remain connected.

For Tibetans, WeChat Was A Symbol Of Desire To Stay Connected – Despite Surveillance

When we interviewed the Tibetan prominent activist and India’s National Director for Students of Free Tibet (SFT), Ms Rinzin Chodon, she said:

“The recent announcement by the Indian government banning 59 Chinese apps is a political move sending China a strong message, as a result of the recent aggressive intrusion by PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in the Indian territory. This will definitely have both positive and negative impact on people, especially as WeChat is the most commonly-used app to communicate with exiled Tibetans. Therefore, the banning of this app will pose great inconvenience... There surely are different alternatives, but it’s easier said than done, especially for Tibetans living under 24/7 surveillance by the CCP. However, we have witnessed how the CCP use WeChat to surveil and persecute Tibetans inside Tibet, for sharing information and content as simple as a photo of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.”
Rinzin Chodon

Although heavily censored and monitored, WeChat, among Tibetans, was symbolic of our continued wish to remain connected and interact socially on various private and public issues, helping us fill – albeit with risks – our large voids in communication. However, sharing what China calls ‘politically sensitive information’ in the form of texts, photos and videos over WeChat, have led to arrests and imprisonment. Chinese authorities have arrested 10 people in Lhasa for spreading ‘rumours’ about the coronavirus outbreak on 12 Mar 2020 on WeChat.

WeChat Was A Personal & Political Tool For Tibetans In Exile

Yet, for many Tibetans, WeChat has become an indispensable part of their social lives. A Tibetan woman who had recently escaped from eastern Tibet’s Amdo Province, told this author:

“I saw the news about Indian government’s ban on Chinese apps including WeChat and immediately contacted my families inside Tibet and shared the news. I once again noted all their phone numbers so that we will be able to stay in touch.”

She is aware that phone lines inside Tibet are notorious for remaining jammed, and security personnel regularly listen to calls. “At least with WeChat, we were able to remain in constant touch. Now, I am more concerned.”

Tibetans have also used WeChat for purposes beyond communicating with people inside Tibet. A number of Tibetans in exile use the app to form large groups, where topics – ranging from health, politics, and religion and current affairs – are vigorously discussed and debated.

Dr Sonika Gupta, Associate Professor in Chinese Studies and Global Politics at the Department of Humanities and Social Science (HSS), Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Chennai notes that the ban has put Tibetans in exile in a difficult situation.

“Since the last election campaign, WeChat has begun to be used in a massive way – both in the political and personal networks – in exile,” says Dr Gupta.

“While the CTA has expressed concerns that WeChat compromises the security of users and their families, it has not been possible for the CTA to discontinue its use. The ban by the Indian government will achieve this but at a visible human cost, especially to those Tibetans in exile, a large part of this group includes young Tibetans who arrived in India in the 1990s to study in Tibetan schools, most without any accompanying family members.”
Dr Sonika Gupta, Associate Professor in Chinese Studies and Global Politics, IIT-Madras

Tibetans Once Again ‘Plunged Into Eerie Silence Of Not Knowing’

WeChat provided a heavily censored and dangerous communication line between Tibetans in Tibet and India. Nevertheless, it was a medium that helped families remain connected over exciting news as well as mundane daily routines. Friends and old classmates shared memories, and teachers and students shared their learnings.

With this one move, it seems that the Himalayas have grown taller, and Tibetans have once again been plunged into the eerie silence of not knowing.

The 59 Chinese apps banned by the government have been taken down from Google App Store and Apple Play Store in India, blocking avenues of their access respectively.

(Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at The Tibet Policy Institute, Central Tibetan Administration, studying social media’s prevalence, implications and impacts on Tibetan communities both in Tibet and exile. His research interest also extends to exploring Chinese cyber security policy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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