Trump’s WeChat Ban Likely to Backfire

As usual, crackdown appears ill-thought-out and more likely to do harm than good

By: Joyce Chen

The decision earlier this month by US President Donald Trump to ban TikTok and WeChat – two strongholds of Chinese social media in the United States and beyond – is confusing and likely more harmful to American citizens of Chinese descent and US companies than to China.

The president, as widely reported, issued the ban while blaming the Chinese Communist Party-approved apps of collecting “vast swathes… [of] Americans’ personal and proprietary information”, compromising national security. Since 2009, American social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp have all been banned in China.

However, it would be a major mistake to retaliate by matching the CCP’s internet censorship. WeChat is primarily a messaging app, but also has social media, online banking, and ride-hailing features. This disruption to the Chinese market could have serious effects on American multinational companies – for example, Apple fears that iPhone sales will suffer heavily should WeChat be unavailable from Appstores. Without WeChat’s money-transfer facilities, some industries such as designer clothing may lose business in America and be encouraged to further divert their operations to China.

While Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, is reluctant to release data about regional usage, Apptopia’s analytics estimate that WeChat has up to 19 million active users in America, which likely includes almost all 6 million Chinese Americans who use WeChat as the most ubiquitous way to stay in touch with Chinese family and friends across continents.

Ironically, many first-generation Chinese immigrants who will be most affected by the ban may have partially chosen to move to America as the supposed “Land of the Free.” Combined with recent surges of coronavirus-related anti-Asian racism, Trump’s decision may suggest to potential migrants that America is becoming less willing to accommodate Chinese people.

The ban is being enforced under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which would see app stores remove WeChat for download but would not necessarily force existing users off the app. It is yet unclear how exactly the law would be applied, but it is likely to have major effects on usership – for example, a mobile update may render an older version of the app unusable.

To many, Trump’s proposed bans are merely the latest incursions in the evolving Sino-American tension, which many have referred to as a neo-Cold War. Tencent itself has downplayed the situation as the American market constitutes only 2 percent of WeChat revenue. In reality, however, this ban would have far stronger personal impacts than the one on TikTok.

Many Chinese immigrants, who maintain strong family ties with relatives back in China, check on their wellbeing via frequent video calling or messaging on the app. Even if another medium for communication is found, this creates a significant barrier to care and maintaining relationships, especially if elderly people find the switch difficult to manage.

WeChat hosts the biggest Chinese communities around the world and connects people to their Chinese identity, culture, and language when they are separated from their familial roots. In America, it has also recently platformed second-generation students calling on the Chinese community to tackle internal anti-black racism and sharing information and resources regarding Covid 19. NGOs distributing PPE to underequipped doctors and nurses in China were able to fundraise internationally via WeChat Pay. Being such a multifunctional app, it is hard to imagine any other platform replicating it in the near future, both in terms of user base and experience.

The potential impact on mainland Chinese users has also been overlooked. Whereas mainstream media within China is monitored carefully to align with the interests of the Communist Party, external communication can challenge misinformation and whistle-blow within trusted circles of friends and family.

WeChat itself is heavily monitored and censored, a fact known to all of its users – from the removal of messages and news articles that fail to toe the party line, to the closing of groups and accounts that discuss sensitive information. Still, it is wrong to assume that political discourse on the app is stamped out. Users frequently create new slang to refer to President Xi, the Communist Party and even China itself, inventing new language as soon as AI algorithms catch on.

Dr. Li Wenliang was silenced after he notified colleagues via WeChat when he discovered the dangerous potential of the novel coronavirus. However, the power of the Chinese government is yet limited in cautioning and arresting political dissenters outside of its borders. Even within China, Fang Fang’s daily diary shared insights on the developing situation in Wuhan before the virus took hold in other provinces and spread abroad.

Let us not underestimate the genuine security threat. User data is an incredibly powerful tool, both for surveillance purposes and the manipulation of public thought and opinion. Nevertheless, given that China’s main concern in monitoring WeChat is to censor anti-governmental speech and identify dissidents, this aspect of WeChat’s operations – while disturbing – is likely not a huge concern for most American users, who can simply turn to another social media to express their political views.

Equally, Western companies’ abuses and mishandlings of data have had huge effects on the American population. Tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter have only very recently taken a stand against coronavirus and health misinformation, hidden propaganda and hate speech on their websites. The Cambridge Analytica scandal almost certainly swung votes in Trump’s favor, the greatest tech interference yet into American democracy.

If the ban is enforced on September 15, Trump will alienate his Chinese vote – according to the National Exit Poll, he only won 27 percent of the Asian-American vote in 2016 - and more crucially, fail to uphold the pride and joy of America: their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

By cutting an essential form of communication and one of the few streams of external information into the Chinese public, Trump would overstep into the private lives of millions of Chinese people and lose a crucial chance for Americans to understand and even influence trends and conversations in mainland China. It is one thing to conflate Chinese companies with the CCP; it is another to disregard Chinese Americans as collateral damage.

Joyce Chen is an Asia Sentinel intern currently studying in the UK

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