Exiled Tibetans Suffer as WeChat Bans Leave Home Even Further Away
The messaging app was a lifeline—and a political danger.
NEW DELHI—Karma Tenzin knows that he will never be able to visit his mother in Tibet. He only wants to know if she is fine.
When he was 10 years old in 1994, Tenzin’s parents paid a professional smuggler 700 yuan (around $85, and around a year’s rural household income) to take him out of Tibet while the rest of the family stayed behind. He walked for 14 days with a group of 20 refugees in the punishing Himalayan weather, evading the Chinese police and border guards, and crossed over to Nepal, eventually reaching his current home of India.
He hasn’t seen his mother since then. But a few years ago, they started communicating over WeChat, a Chinese messaging app owned by Tencent, that allowed them to make video calls, share pictures and messages, and transfer money. “While I could not physically touch [my family members], I could at least see them,” Tenzin said.
But on June 29, India banned WeChat, along with 58 other Chinese apps, after a deadly border clash with China in the Galwan River Valley resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers. It was the most violent face-off between the two sides in around 50 years.
As the tension persisted at the border, calls for banning Chinese products gained momentum in India. Over the next two months, the Indian government banned over 200 Chinese mobile apps, including Alibaba Group’s UC Browser and ByteDance’s widely popular app TikTok. The government cited national security, but to critics the move was kneejerk nationalism amid a surge of anti-Chinese feeling.
Since then, Tenzin has been trying to establish contact with his mother. “I haven’t heard a word from my family in the last two months,” he said. “I am most worried about my mother. She is very old. And not too well. I am used to being away from my family. But I really need to know how she is.”
Tenzin is hardly the only one in this situation. Thousands of Tibetans fled their homeland after 1959 when the Dalai Lama escaped to India, fearing persecution by the Chinese authorities, and sought asylum there. The Dalai Lama eventually established the Tibetan government-in-exile in the northern city of Dharamshala, which remains the center of Tibetan life in India. There are about 90,000 Tibetans in India today, including Tibetans who have never seen their home country; the population was once larger, but many have migrated to Europe or North America.
Tenzin Dalha, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamshala, said that despite the security risks associated with WeChat, 71 percent of Tibetans in India used it to communicate with their families back home. “There was a wide communication gap between people inside and outside Tibet because China blocks all other global social media apps, and phone calls are regularly intercepted by the Chinese authorities,” Dalha said. “When WeChat was first introduced in 2011, there was practically no other medium connecting people on both sides. So it filled that vacuum and became their primary mode of communication.”
Indian intelligence agencies as well as cybersecurity researchers around the world have constantly warned of the censorship and surveillance mechanisms of WeChat. The Trump administration has also sought to ban the app in the United States. A May report by Citizen Lab, a research center in Canada, said that WeChat conducts surveillance of images and files by users even outside of China and uses the data to train censorship algorithms. In 2017, China passed a law making it obligatory for all Chinese companies to share the data they gather.
Yet WeChat had become indispensable for the Tibetan community in India. “They basically compromised privacy for convenience,” Dalha said. The app fostered conversations not only around politics but also culture and day-to-day life in Tibet. “Similarly, journalists and stringers in Tibet used it to share information from the territory with the diaspora,” Dalha added.
“It was the first time people in exile could know so much about people in Tibet,” said Lobsang Gyatso Sither, the Digital Security Program director at the Tibet Action Institute.
WeChat’s total dominance of Chinese online spaces meant that it served many other functions within the diaspora. “Many Tibetan students, especially those pursuing monastic education, used to receive funds from their families through WeChat,” Dalha said. “Many people also used to contribute money to the monasteries in India through it. Even Indian businesspersons with trade ties with China were using it to conduct monetary transactions. They are all left in the lurch now.”
Wangchen Topgyal, a law student in Bengaluru, said that the ban has not only cut the communication channels with his family but has also left him struggling for funds. “I used to speak with my mother every week. My family also used to send me money through the app to support my education,” he said. “But now none of that is happening. I had to recently start a small business to sustain myself.”
Topgyal is currently using DingTalk, an Alibaba Group-owned app, to talk to his family, although he said that they do not yet know how to use it properly.
Dalha, however, cautions against the use of DingTalk. “I have been advising people not to use it, as Alibaba Group has close ties with the Chinese government, and all the data would be shared with them. It’s unsafe,” he said.
Many have been forced to use virtual private networks, which can mask a user’s location, to be able to continue using WeChat. But there are frequent interruptions, according to Dalha, and not everybody can afford the paid channels.
At the same time, though, Tibetans found themselves adopting habits of self-censorship in order to be able to stay on the app—and it was used to spy on the diaspora, which is frequently targeted by Chinese intelligence. Many activists working for the Tibetan freedom struggle are supporting the WeChat ban. Sither of the Tibet Action Institute is one of them.
“I think it is an opportunity to … move away from WeChat and think about safer and better alternatives,” he said. “Everyone knows that WeChat censors and monitors content. More and more people are getting arrested or detained for sharing pictures of the Dalai Lama, soldiers, or anything that the Chinese government deems politically sensitive. The risk for common Tibetans is huge.”
In March this year, the Chinese authorities arrested 10 people in Lhasa, Tibet, for spreading “rumors” about the coronavirus on WeChat. In March 2019, they detained a 45-year-old man for sharing books on the Dalai Lama’s teachings via the platform.
“Because people know that WeChat is under surveillance, they tend to self-censor out of fear. And when people start self-censoring, it gives a lot of power to the Chinese government,” Sither added. He suggests using alternative applications such as Signal, Elyments, or Wire, some of which allow users to chat anonymously.
But Tenzin said that his mother does not use any of these apps, much like Topgyal’s family. He is instead trying to connect with a friend in his hometown in Tibet who uses a virtual private network. “I left him a message, requesting him to go to my mother and get me her phone number. As of now, I haven’t heard anything from him,” he said.
Sither acknowledged that it is a big challenge to get people inside Tibet to use alternate apps: “I understand that it is harder in Tibet than in India. There is a need for awareness campaigns and public education that reaches everyone inside Tibet.”
But until that happens, a large part of the community is practically cut off from their families and homeland.
“I think I was always prepared for this,” Tenzin said. “I would often imagine that the Chinese authorities would someday detain my mother and block all my communication links with her and I would never be able to speak with her again. I accepted this as my life, my karma. But I always expected the trouble to come from the Chinese side, not the Indian government.”