People walk past a Wechat Pay sign at the Tencent company headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, Aug. 7, 2020.

US-China relations

WeChat users in the US rankled by potential ban on the app

WeChat, a wildly popular app in China and among the Chinese diaspora, could soon become unavailable in the US, after President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting the app over security concerns. 

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People walk past a Wechat Pay sign at the Tencent company headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, Aug. 7, 2020.

Credit:

David Kirton/Reuters 

Frankie Huang, a writer and illustrator based in the Greater Boston area, first heard about WeChat years ago, while she was living in China.

“I was taking a hip-hop dance class in Beijing. And my teacher said, ‘I should add you on WeChat … And I was like, 'I don’t know what this is,'” Huang said

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WeChat is a Chinese social media app, e-commerce platform, blogging site, banking tool, ride-hailing service — and more — all rolled into one super-app. It’s wildly popular in China and beyond, with over 1 billion users worldwide, and more than 19 million active users in the US.

“I feel like every Chinese-speaking person and people with connections to China ... are on WeChat. And it’s just this really powerful network.” 

Frankie Huang, writer, illustrator, Boston

“I feel like every Chinese-speaking person and people with connections to China ... are on WeChat. And it’s just this really powerful network,” said Huang, who uses WeChat to stay in touch with family and friends, as well as follow in-app blog posts that are relevant to her research and writing. “It’s become something really indispensable in my life.”

But Huang and millions of others who rely on WeChat for personal and professional reasons could soon face restrictions when they try to use the app. In early August, the Trump administration issued an executive order that takes aim at WeChat.

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Under the order, which several sources described as vague and unclear, anyone based in the US would be prohibited from engaging in “any transaction that is related to WeChat” starting in late September.

Although the order doesn’t explicitly call for an outright ban, many WeChat users are on edge about losing an app they’ve likened to a lifeline to China.

“WeChat is often the first thing I check in the morning when I wake up and the last thing I check before I go to bed,” said Charlie Gu, a marketing consultant who lives in San Francisco.

WeChat is crucial in Gu’s personal and professional life. Gu uses the app to communicate with family back in Shanghai, where he was born and grew up. WeChat is one of the few messaging platforms they can use, as many other messaging and social media apps are banned in China.

The cross-border marketing agency Gu founded, Kollective Influence, also relies on the app to introduce and advertise American brands and products to the Chinese market.

“I was very shocked [when the executive order was issued]. And, to be honest … scared of the possibilities.”

Charlie Gu, Kollective Influence

“I was very shocked [when the executive order was issued],” Gu said. “And, to be honest … scared of the possibilities.”

In the days since the executive order was issued, he’s been fielding calls from confused clients and business partners. “They’re just waiting to see what exactly the executive order will cover,” Gu said.

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The executive order is just the latest in a string of actions the Trump administration has taken against Chinese tech giants and apps, including the telecommunications giant Huawei and TikTok, a short-video social media platform. The Trump administration has been on an aggressive campaign to edge such companies and products out of the US market.

“For a long time, we’ve seen these companies … conduct business in ways that … US policy regulators haven’t really found an issue with,” said Rui Zhong, a program associate at the Wilson Center, a US-based think tank. “But as diplomatic relations between China and the US unravel throughout 2020, I think that’s definitely an environment that we’re going to see change.”

When it comes to WeChat specifically, even those who rely heavily on the app say there’s good reason to take action against it. Security researchers and human rights activists have tracked how the Chinese government uses WeChat to surveil its citizens, to spread propaganda, and to censor critics.

But even WeChat’s fiercest critics say a ban here in the US is not the way to go.

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“We don't believe this country should do that. It is not in line with our democratic values,” said Yang Jianli, a former political prisoner of China who founded and now heads Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a US-based nonprofit.

Yang, along with Washington, DC-based lawyer Times Wang, has been working on a series of lawsuits against WeChat on behalf of US users who allege they were censored or surveilled through the app. Any US action against WeChat needs to be calculated, Wang said.

“If you look at this from the Chinese Community Party’s perspective, nothing would make them happier than a ban because it legitimizes their way of governing,” Wang said. 

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