Users of WhatsApp in China and security researchers reported widespread service disruptions amid fears that the popular messaging service may be blocked by authorities in the world's most populous country. The app was inaccessible unless virtual private network software was used to circumvent China's censorship apparatus, known colloquially as The Great Firewall. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)
Policing of China’s internet, bulwarked by the country’s so-called Great Firewall, is becoming tighter.

The most recent social media giant to be affected is WhatsApp.

The company’s reach has been blocked in the mainland. Coincidentally, Beijing is preparing for a major political event on Wednesday, the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which takes place once every five years.

Ticked-off WhatsApp users in China began experiencing service disruptions in July.

Although the restrictions were lifted a few weeks later, users were limited to sending and receiving text messages and sharing videos, audio files and photos was restricted.

Now all WhatsApp services are unavailable.

The New York Times reported that Beijing may have developed customised encryption-based tech to block the service.

Users are instead encouraged to use WeChat, one of China’s most popular messaging platforms, with more than 900 million active users.

An expert said WeChat was favoured by Beijing because it complied with the government’s official requests for data, an indication that China favours services that can be effectively monitored.

WhatsApp isn’t the only service disrupted in China.

Some virtual private network (VPN) services also appear to be experiencing problems as the government tightens security in the lead-up the Communist Party meeting where the party’s members will choose its leadership.

President Xi Jinping is expected to remain in the seat of power. However, it is still uncertain who will join the Chinese president at the round table. The Standing Committee of the Politburo is the party’s highest-ranking group.

VPNs use servers abroad to secure a link to internet sites which are blocked and are essential in China to access the likes Facebook, Gmail, YouTube or news websites like The New York Times, all of which are otherwise blocked.

Winnie the Pooh has also been banned, according to reports, because officials felt he resembled Xi.

China recently embarked on a crackdown on the use of software which allows users to get around its internet censorship and app developers are being hounded by police.

Tech giant Apple has complied with the regulations and purged more than 60 VPN apps from its App Store, because they didn’t have a licence.

The BBC reported that VPNs which were available on the App Store were the legal ones that meet government regulations.

Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook told the broadcaster the company would “rather not” have done it, but insisted the company had to abide by the law.

At the company’s annual developer conference in June, Cook praised the “developer community” of which there are almost 2 million in China alone.

Some quarters have criticised Apple’s stance in only working with people making legal VPN apps. One critic accused the company of “aiding censorship” in China.

However, Apple has major plans for its China operations. It has appointed its first China managing director and it’s busy with a multibillion-dollar project to establish a data centre and more of its cloud computing here. This is crucial for the company, so rocking the boat would be imprudent.

GlobalWebIndex reports that China’s campaign to crack down on VPNs will seriously disrupt the work of students, entrepreneurs and researchers. China has around 100 million regular VPN users. The cost of the censorship to trade and business is difficult to pin down.

China’s cyber regulator has dismissed rumours of the VPN ban in the country as false.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a statement saying it would not block legitimate access to the global internet by companies and individual users. The ministry also noted that it was still reviewing the regulations.

Hopefully, to the relief of foreigners and expats in the country, WhatsApp services might be restored after the party congress.

Maybe even good old Pooh might be forgiven for his looks and the ban lifted. But don’t hold your breath.

Peters is the live editor of Weekend Argus. She is on

a 10-month scholarship with the China Africa Press Centre. Instagram: mels_chinese_takeout