AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When people in China pick up their smartphones each morning and check their messages, WeChat is most likely the app of choice. The messaging program isn't well-known in the U.S., but in China it boasts 300 million users. WeChat allows users to organize themselves into groups. And NPR's Anthony Kuhn, in Beijing, says it's having a profound impact.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A group of college students are playing games. They're getting to know each other at a leadership training session. Each student here runs a nonprofit organization. Each nonprofit forms its own circle or chat group on WeChat. Yubien(ph) is doing the training. He points to a long list of WeChat groups on his smartphone.
YUBIEN: (Through translator) The group I use the most is the one with my colleagues in it. At the start of each day, we use it to discuss the tasks we have to do. This is where I post most of my stuff.
KUHN: Michelle Ling is executive director of Black Apple Youth, the umbrella group of nonprofits that's hosting this leadership training. She says Black Apple has 20 WeChat groups, each of which has many subgroups.
MICHELLE LING: (Through translator) They're divided according to activities. For example, we held a training group in August and all the participants formed a group. Then we also have six groups representing different regions of the country, as well as one for overseas members.
KUHN: China's government maintains restrictions on its citizens' ability to organize, but WeChat enables its users to link groups of up to 500 people into nationwide networks. They can raise funds and mobilize members quickly. Hu Yong is a scholar of new media at Beijing University. He says together with China's popular microblogging app, Weibo, WeChat has given Chinese citizens a tool to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to express themselves and form civic groups.
HU YONG: (Through translator) New media makes it possible for Chinese people to achieve a partial measure of freedom of speech and freedom of association. Under the current circumstances, forming a non-governmental organization is very difficult.
KUHN: Michelle Ling adds, though, that her groups take certain precautions when using WeChat.
LING: (Through translator) We don't encourage our young people to get involved in excessively radical discourse that may affect our organization's future or take political positions that are too obvious.
KUHN: Then there are people like Vancouver-based activist Li Yiping. He wrote an online manifesto whose title can be roughly translated as "Strategy For Regime Change." The strategy is this - do not have a formal leadership structure that authorities can target. Keep all political content off-line. To outsiders, your WeChat group should just look like a bunch of citizens organizing dinner parties.
LI YIPING: (Through translator) Through the use of this strategy, we've already broken through the Communist Party's ban on non-governmental political groups. Behind the party's Iron Curtain, we have already found limitless space to develop. They can't monitor, much less suppress, our form of organization.
KUHN: In the past year, Chinese authorities have nabbed plenty of activists when they meet off-line. The government has also banned the unauthorized posting of political content on WeChat, but it continues to allow people to form WeChat groups. Media scholar Hu Yong says the government is a quick learner, and just because the government hasn't clamped down on WeChat groups yet, it doesn't mean they won't do it later. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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