“While the use of WhatsApp, WeChat and like messaging apps are legal in China, we have seen in the latest espionage charge of a US citizen in Russia where the use of WhatsApp has been cited in his espionage charges,” read an email seen by CNN.
Representatives for WeChat and WhatsApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘Exercise increased caution’
“UC Davis Global Affairs routinely posts links to State Department travel advisories and CDC (Centers for Disease Control) health advisories for places where our faculty, staff and students travel,” the spokeswoman told CNN.
The email was sent by Gary Leonard, an executive director with UC’s Risk Services department, under the Office of the President. Leonard, who is traveling, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Claire Doan, director of media relations for UC’s Office of the President, told CNN the Risk Services department “relayed the guidance from WorldAware (a security and risk management company with whom we consult) to risk managers on our campuses and medical centers.”
That government advisory, stating the threat level as 2 on a four point scale, told Americans to “exercise increased caution in China due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws as well as special restrictions on dual US-Chinese nationals.”
‘Do not sign anything’
China has always had a slightly uneasy relationship with foreign students.
The comic book-style poster showed a female named Xiao Li, being showered with compliments, red roses, fancy dinners and romantic walks in the park by David, a “visiting scholar researching issues about China” who persuades her to share internal government documents.
Academics and even some students visiting China have complained about being watched and followed by police, or dragged in for questioning about their research and who they are speaking to in the country.
As well as warning “do not sign anything,” the new UC guidance instructs staff to “be cautious of lengthy Q&A or interrogation to avoid inadvertently providing any information that may be distorted to deny departure or facilitate an arrest.”
In the past, concerns have mainly focused on people’s public pronouncements or statements to the authorities, but the new guidance suggests officials are concerned that even private comments could be used against academics and students.
‘New level of suppression’
UC’s concerns would appear to be well founded. China is increasingly cracking down on previously tolerated spheres of dissent, with even private comments being policed.
Twitter is blocked inside China and while a tiny number of Chinese dissidents and activists do use the platform, their influence is limited and in the past they were mostly ignored by the authorities.
While tweets are public, the Chinese authorities have in the past also pursued people for things they say in private, particularly on Tencent’s messaging app WeChat, which has a track record of conforming with government censorship and surveillance.
“Numerous instances have shown that Chinese authorities have access to private chats on WeChat,” HRW’s Yaqiu Wang told CNN.
“The crackdown on Chinese Twitter users and the punishment leveled against WeChat users for their private messages show that authorities have become increasingly intolerant of speeches that are either private or anonymous.”
Experts have long warned against using WeChat for anything sensitive, even as the sheer dominance of the app makes it difficult to avoid entirely in China.
“The reality is that ordinary Chinese often feel powerless and fatalistic when it comes to censorship and surveillance,” she said.