China's WeChat apologizes for showering users with U.S. flag

WeChat users typing in the phrase "civil rights" last weekend noticed a cascade of Stars and Stripes raining down their screens in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, left, but  no special icons appear when patriotic Chinese terms were entered.

Story highlights

  • WeChat messaging app users typing in the phrase "civil rights" were inundated with U.S. flags
  • WeChat said the U.S. flag special feature was in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • However, no special icons appeared when patriotic Chinese terms were entered
  • And it was only meant to be seen only by users in the U.S., not in other regions

Beijing (CNN)China's largest instant messaging service has apologized to nationalistic critics who blasted the popular app for "showering" the accounts of some of its 400 million users with the U.S. flag.

WeChat users typing in the phrase "civil rights" last weekend noticed a cascade of Stars and Stripes raining down their screens, much to the chagrin of some Chinese customers, who said that no special icons appeared when patriotic Chinese terms were entered.
"When we entered words like National Day, China and the Red Flag with Five Stars, nothing happened," complained the Fujian provincial committee of the Communist Youth League in its official microblog Sunday night, after posting pictures of its experiments. "WeChat, could you explain why?"
    In an online statement, WeChat -- owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent -- clarified that its team had added the U.S. flag special feature in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States on Monday and had meant for it to be seen only by users in the U.S.
    "A system error had caused users in other regions to use this feature as well," read the statement, which also apologized for the "misunderstanding."

    Tightening grip

    The controversy over the Stars and Stripes comes as the Chinese government -- under an increasingly powerful and ideologically conservative President Xi Jinping -- continues to tighten its grip over the cyberspace and beyond.
    The country's top Internet regulator has shut down 133 public WeChat accounts for "spreading distorted historical information" about the ruling Communist Party, state media reported Tuesday.
    The same agency recently told the state-controlled People's Daily newspaper that China's six major web portals deleted more than 340 million pornographic or otherwise "harmful" posts last year as part of the government's "cleaning up the Internet" campaign.
    Earlier this week, the Communist leadership in Beijing ordered universities nationwide to fortify ideological control by "studying and propagating Marxism," as well as "cultivating and promoting the core values of socialism," according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
    While many applauded the Communist Youth League's criticism of WeChat's flag feature, other Internet users called it narrow-minded.
    Referring to the attached screen grabs that unmistakably show an Apple device being used, one of the most liked comments under the post shot back: "A Chinese Communist Youth League provincial committee using an American smartphone -- could you explain why?"