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Is WeChat's "cleaver" a death threat?

In February 2021, the Chinese social-media platform WeChat released version 8 which changed the appearance of some 'emoji' images. But there was a problem:

So if a version 8 user selected the [Cleaver] emoji, they'd see a clean knife---but, perhaps unknown to them, anyone reading their message on version 7 would see a nastier-looking cleaver dripping with blood.

If I'd been on WeChat's development team, I'd have suggested that the newer "less violent" versions of the pictures be given completely new codes, as we don't want the system to make anybody's message seem more violent on the receiving side than it looked on the sending side.

As it happens, I'd been invited to a 200-member UK Chinese group chat during the COVID-19 pandemic and felt a couple of prominent company executives in the group were excessively ridiculing the difficulties of older people. I probably should have just left (notwithstanding the computing discussion to which I'd contributed earlier), but I tried to stay, and questioned the ridicule---which led to my falling into a `posturing' trap when they made it look like I had to answer an unrelated hard question first. While trying this I quoted from a China government website, and got accused of fabricating the quote, insulting China and being racist---standard "flame war" vitriol. One of the messages sent before I left said he'd give "anti-China rascals" absolutely no courtesy, and then added what displayed on my device as a cleaver dripping with blood. I was concerned this might have been meant as a threat to murder me.

I do however have reasonable evidence that the sender was using iOS (he promoted the legally-risky Clubhouse app before it was available on Android; he might even have resented me in part because I had cautioned consultants about GDPR inquiries and indemnity clauses when he wanted `followers')---if he kept that iOS device up-to-date then he probably thought he was sending a clean knife, not a blood-soaked one. This fact likely reduces the threat level (a clean knife is more likely to be a metaphor than a blood-soaked one)---it might have saved worry if I'd checked for display differences earlier (which I didn't because WeChat was supposed to normalise its emoji appearance across platforms).

Some may feel that even a clean knife is too threatening, and I am not able to advise on every case, but:

This suggests that, in absence of evidence to the contrary, a single-use cleaver emoji on WeChat should not be taken as a death threat.

(After I left, several individuals contacted me privately to say they felt the cleaver sender had overreacted; they didn't want me to get the impression that all Chinese people are as unfriendly as him or the ones who'd cheered him on. But nobody mentioned the cleaver specifically.)

I made this page for authorities I'd contacted when I thought my life was threatened. They closed the case by writing on file that the image I'd seen was a technical fault, but my full explanation was apparently too long for the form so it's here if need be. Hopefully these notes are also useful to others, but nothing is legal advice.


All material © Silas S. Brown unless otherwise stated.