Banning WeChat will destroy a lone bridge between the US and China

WeChat / WIRED

When Ted Yuan first heard about US president Donald Trump’s executive orders seeking to ban WeChat, he was shocked. Yuan, a 24-year-old customer strategist from Mainland China who moved to the US two years ago, is a member of the massive Chinese community in the country – including nearly 370,000 students and 2.9 million immigrants – who rely on the Chinese-owned app to keep in touch with loved ones back home.
Last week, Trump issued executive orders that will take effect in 45 days, barring “transactions” with WeChat and TikTok, on the grounds that they “threaten national security, foreign policy and economy.” Most American-owned communication apps including Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, are blocked in China.

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“WeChat is the only tool we can use to connect with anybody back in China,” Yuan said. “It helped me a lot when I first came here – I’ve never been so far away from home. It’s a very essential tool for us. It’s like a Chinese digital space.”
It’s an unprecedented move that will likely have far broader ramifications than the White House realises. A platform that functions like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Amazon, and Uber combined, WeChat – owned by Chinese technology company Tencent – is a “super app” that has become ingrained in every aspect of Chinese life, allowing users to do anything from talk, pay for utilities, shop and send money. With approximately 1.2 billion monthly users, the app is the preferred mode of communication not only for ordinary Chinese people, but also businesses, investors, academics, and journalists who have a stake in both countries.
“We are reviewing the executive order to get a full understanding,” says a Tencent spokesperson in an email, adding that the company does not publicise the number of WeChat users registered in the US. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The potential ban is the latest move in a sweeping tit-for-tat confrontation between China and the US spanning areas including technology, trade, diplomacy and media – a feud that has caused Sino-American relations to deteriorate at a dizzying rate in recent months. Yet the WeChat ban will perhaps have the most pervasive impact on people straddling both countries, and represents a drastic turn in US policy on issues of cyber sovereignty and freedom of information – setting a controversial precedent with potentially global ramifications.

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Shiqi Ling, a 24-year-old Chinese international student who has been quarantining in the US away from family since the start of the pandemic, says that beyond keeping in touch with friends and family the app is also used among students for fostering solidarity movements – such as Chinese people against anti-black racism – and organising mutual aid. During the pandemic, in the absence of clear direction from the US government, students used the app to source masks and share advice on how to protect themselves from the virus – as well as navigate recent immigration restrictions imposed by Trump’s administration.
“WeChat is one of the apps I check first when I open my eyes every morning and it’s probably the last thing I use as well. It creates a community for us to stay connected,” she says. “I feel like a lot of the human interactions and meaning behind WeChat is quickly glossed over in this ban. Ultimately, it’s the people who are bearing the cost.”
While the scope of the order is still unclear, experts say it will be difficult and costly to implement. If interpreted broadly, a ban on transactions could mean anything from removing the service from app stores to preventing telecommunication carriers or cloud service providers from supporting the app, according to Xiaomeng Lu, a senior geo-technology analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
“For a while, the US has been campaigning [for] free data flow, and that’s in line with US tech companies’ interests. But right now we’re seeing this drastic turn,” Lu says, adding that if more countries take this approach it may cause data to become less secure and slow down technology innovation. This happens at a time of growing internet fragmentation – just last month, the European Court of Justice invalidated the EU-US Privacy Shield, a trans-Atlantic agreement enabling companies to move data between the two territories.

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“The signal they’re sending is that we [in the US] don’t trust foreign companies holding our data, or even just to touch on it,” Lu says. “If you apply that logic to other jurisdictions, regulators will look at that and say: if you don’t trust foreign companies processing data this way, how do I trust American companies processing my citizens’ data in the US?”
That said, there are indeed serious reasons why the US might want to be wary of WeChat. In a tweet last week, Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that WeChat “sucks everyone related to China into a black hole of censorship and surveillance.” The app regularly censors politically sensitive content about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it also has been accused of facilitating the spread of fake news and hate speech in several countries. In Australia, WeChat has recently been blamed for influencing elections in Melbourne; in Canada, it was the vector of an alleged vote-buying scandal. A report on Chinese interference by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that at least 26 accounts run by nine Chinese media outlets were linked to the United Front Work Department, an arm of the CCP responsible for organising and influencing Chinese interest groups – including the Chinese diaspora – accused of spreading propaganda.
“In activities directed at diaspora communities, the CCP seeks to co-opt, control and install community leaders, community groups, business associations and media,” the report said. “It seeks to collapse the diversity of Chinese communities into a fictional homogenous and ‘patriotic’ group united under the party’s leadership.”
In 2016, the app played a crucial role in mobilising tens of thousands in the US to participate in nationwide rallies across 40 cities in support of Peter Liang, a Chinese American police officer who fatally shot an unarmed African American man, and was perceived to have been let down by the NYPD due to his race. It represented a case of rare collective political action from the Chinese diaspora community.
Although data from WeChat accounts registered inside and outside of China are theoretically separate, a study published in May by the University of Toronto’s research outfit The Citizen Lab found that communications among non-China-registered accounts are subject to pervasive surveillance previously thought to be reserved for those registered in China. Last year, a researcher uncovered a Chinese database storing over a billion WeChat conversations, including messages from the US, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia.
“It’s an unspoken truth that the Chinese government has access to whatever you’re chatting about on WeChat. I worked in China for a year and our company policy is not [to] talk about anything confidential. There are many incidents in China when the internet police arrested somebody because of what they said on WeChat,” Yuan says. “[But] I don’t use it for confidential stuff or anything related to US intellectual property. I chat with family and friends. Facebook and Twitter also have fake news – why doesn’t the US ban [them]?”
The need to address WeChat’s problematic aspects is clear. Yet experts say they should be tackled in a manner that directly resolves systematic issues of data privacy and security – rather than through an executive order that seems to have been hastily pushed forward without much prior deliberation. Trump’s hardening stance on China has widely been interpreted as an electioneering strategy to garner support ahead of the presidential election in November.
“Even if a policy may be tactically or directionally justified, how it is framed, introduced and implemented is still incredibly consequential when it comes to the norms and standards and legitimacy of these measures,” says Elsa Kania, adjunct senior fellow with the Centre for New American Security. “To frame these measures as so centred upon the CCP is not wrong, but is a lost opportunity to articulate that America stands against these practices.”
“It’s also a missed opportunity to try to drive a wedge between Chinese companies seeking to be globally engaged and more international relative to the Chinese government,” Kania added.
Beyond security concerns, the banning of WeChat represents yet another closure of the few channels for understanding China. While it is true that the app exacerbates Chinese censorship and surveillance, it has also been a tool for activists, scholars and others within Mainland China to send information to the outside world, as well as for researchers to find Chinese-language material from within China. Political parties and organisations have turned to WeChat to foster engagement from Chinese diaspora communities that feel alienated in Western societies, particularly during a time of rising anti-Chinese sentiment globally.
“WeChat is immensely useful for journalists trying to get normal Chinese people’s perspectives, and that’s already missing from many stories on China,” says Isabelle Niu, a freelance journalist in New York. “Like any platform, it can be used to spread disinformation – but it can also be used to encourage people to participate.”
Gaelin Monkman-Kotz, an American who has previously lived in China, echoed Niu’s sentiments. She works for Get Hooked Seafood, a company in Santa Barbara who just began utilising WeChat to market to Chinese consumers in California. In just a few weeks, the company has engaged some 200 consumers through the platform. Previously, she also worked as an English teacher and primarily used WeChat to find Chinese students.
“I have no Chinese heritage. I grew up not knowing any Chinese people. Having spent time in China, [the ban] just reinforces how separate our cultures are and how little understanding there is among [us] about Chinese culture. In California, communities where Chinese people live are very segregated. We might just live miles away, but these worlds are just separate,” Monkman-Kotz says, adding that WeChat is her only means of keeping in touch with connections made in China. “I’m really sad about a potential ban. I’m concerned about the lack of understanding becoming wider.”
Ultimately, for many in the US, losing WeChat is akin to losing a support network of Chinese people as well as China-watchers across the world. Especially for those who have left China permanently, the app serves as a part of Chinese American identity and a connection to their culture, says Han Tang, a Chinese-American in her late 30s who immigrated to the US in 1998. “I don’t think the administration cares about the everyday lives of Chinese people, or Chinese Americans,” she explains.
The ban may have further consequences, though. There may be a wider chilling effect. Ray Chen, a 37-year-old Chinese national who now lives in Wisconsin with his wife and five-year-old daughter, says that the WeChat action – and similar measures by the current administration – are pushing him to reconsider settling in the US. “The atmosphere is a concern for me. We moved to the US for the creative environment, comfort of lifestyle and education. We worry about bullying and anti-Chinese culture,” Chen said.
Looking ahead at the future of US-China relations, Yuan too feels helpless. Many in his circle have been swapping phone numbers and other contact details in case WeChat becomes inaccessible in the US, as well as brainstorming alternative means of communication. Some people in China have downloaded Signal, an encrypted messaging app that has yet to be banned – but will likely be targeted if it surges in popularity.
“I think WeChat will be banned because the current administrations in China and the US are not [ones] who will compromise,” Yuan said. “I’m pretty pessimistic.”
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