China, From Within: Government Condemnation of Facebook, Phantom Taxes, and a Ghost in the WeChat Machine

A week of news the West missed from the world's most populous country.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Every day, FP's China team at the Tea Leaf Nation channel scours dozens of Chinese media outlets to find compelling stories unreported in Western mainstream press. This week, we bring you Facebook terrorism, phantom tax schemes, mobile phone surveillance via virus, a no-no to religious government officials, and a mobile messaging app's new prostitution loophole.

Every day, FP‘s China team at the Tea Leaf Nation channel scours dozens of Chinese media outlets to find compelling stories unreported in Western mainstream press. This week, we bring you Facebook terrorism, phantom tax schemes, mobile phone surveillance via virus, a no-no to religious government officials, and a mobile messaging app’s new prostitution loophole.

A Chinese government office denounces Facebook and Youtube for permitting terror-related content.

The China Internet Reporting Office, a government bureau with a hotline for reporting violations of China’s stringent Internet regulations, has received reports from web users that Facebook and Youtube contain violent terrorist-related content, including jihadist videos of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uighur movement that China considers to be a terrorist organization. In a Sept. 30 report by state news agency Xinhua, the Reporting Office said it "condemns" Facebook and Youtube for their slow reaction time after users report terror-related content.

Though blocked in China since 2009, Facebook has sought to re-enter the Chinese market by opening a Beijing office to serve Chinese businesses that use the social media platform for global advertising. This isn’t a move that Beijing has heartily welcomed; and portraying both Facebook and Youtube as obstacles to China’s ongoing crackdown on terrorism will only serve to weaken Facebook’s position in China.  Also note-worthy: the irony that a Chinese government office is publicizing the reports of netizens who have clearly scaled the Great Firewall to access the banned U.S. websites.

More local governments in China cook the books to meet tax goals amid an economic slowdown.

Local governments in China increasingly rely on phantom tax collection to pad revenue figures, state-run newspaper Economic Information reported on Sept. 29. When local tax authorities overestimate the amount of taxes they plan to collect in a given year, they may give local companies subsidies and then collect the same amount as taxes to achieve the targets. One tax official in an unnamed northern city estimated that 15 percent of the city’s taxation income were phantom in 2013, and the figure could be as high as 30 percent at the county level.

The Chinese economic and real estate slowdown seems to disproportionately affect local governments, which have long depended on land sales and GDP growth to achieve taxation targets. Phantom tax collection reflects large lapses in administrative management of the taxation collection process, which allows collusion between local officials and businesses, and it also obstructs the accurate measuring of China’s economic data, in terms of GDP growth, bank loans, public finances, and corporate profits.

State media warns mobile phone users of WeChat surveillance.

On Oct. 3, state news agency Xinhua warned mobile phone users of a virus called "WeChat Bandit" capable of infecting mobile phones via WeChat, Tencent’s hugely successful mobile messaging app. According to Chinese anti-virus software company Rising, the virus can access the compromised phone’s personal, text, and GPS data, listen in on phone conversations, and even turn on the microphone function to record the user’s voice.

In an apparently unrelated yet strikingly similar occurrence earlier this week, the New York Times reported on Oct. 1 that Hong Kong protesters have also been targets of surveillance from a mobile phone virus masquerading as an app on Facebook’s mobile messaging platform WhatsApp.

What’s worse than a corrupt official? A religious one, according to new Xinjiang government survey.

A newly released survey by China’s party discipline watchdog, the Central Disciplinary Commission, reported that along with nepotism and corruption, another problem in the Xinjiang government is that "some cadres are religious." The Oct. 2 report by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, which presented the inspection findings, characterized religious cadres as a main problem.

This isn’t the first time that religious government officials have come under fire in Xinjiang, where state workers are not allowed to engage in religious practice; in August, China reprimanded 15 state officials for openly practicing their faith. Amid China’s ongoing anti-terror campaign in the autonomous region, where tensions between the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic group and the dominant Han majority have simmered for years, the singling out of cadres in Xinjiang for being "religious" signifies that the party is suspicious of government officials who they believe might be sympathetic to Islamism and separatism.

And finally: WeChat’s new mini-video feature has created a prostitution loophole.

Chinese mobile messaging app WeChat has just launched a new "mini-video" feature allowing users to take six-second videos that, like SnapChat photos, cannot be forwarded or saved. However, as popular tech blog Huxiu noted on Oct. 1, one obvious use for the mini-video feature is as a "sneak peek" for prostitution services. Prostitution and online pornography, though widespread, are illegal in China, and since April, a government campaign has cracked down hard on sex-related Internet content. WeChat has already fallen foul of authorities once since the campaign began; in June, authorities deleted 250,000 WeChat user accounts reportedly linked to prostitution. If the mini-video feature becomes known as a tool for the sex industry, it could introduce further regulatory risk for WeChat.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

Twitter: @rachel_tln

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