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Trump’s WeChat and TikTok Sanctions Worry Chinese in America

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After Huawei and TikTok, WeChat may become the next tech casualty in the US-China digital decoupling.

In two separate executive orders, US President Donald Trump ordered Thursday to prohibit US companies from conducting transactions with TikTok and WeChat, along with their China-based owners ByteDance and Tencent, citing national security concerns.

The executive order accuses WeChat of allowing “the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information” and “censor[ing] content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive.”

The Tencent-owned messaging app “may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party.” The order cites restrictions on WeChat in Australia and India as precedents.

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While China- and foreign-based WeChat users are subject to different policies when it comes to data storage, surveillance, and censorship, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found blurred areas that have raised concerns.

A potential ban on WeChat — which has more than a billion users — will have a major impact on essential communications, especially within Chinese communities in America. Many WeChat users in America, fearing they’ll lose contact with acquaintances in China, are posting their backup contact information from other platforms onto their WeChat friend feeds.

“There are very few substitutes,” says Edward Guo, a Cornell undergraduate student originally from Beijing, who — like many others in the Chinese diaspora — uses WeChat to communicate with family and friends back in China. Most foreign instant messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram, have been banned in China. WeChat remains one of the few channels for cross-border messaging.

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“I have already established a network [of contacts] on WeChat,” says Guo, who has remained in the US because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “If it is banned completely, that will be difficult.”

Ironically, in addition to being a key tool for the US-based Chinese disapora to keep up with family and friends, WeChat has also been heavily employed by Chinese-American Trump supporters to organize and mobilize for his campaigns.

But it is still uncertain how — and to what extent — these bans will be implemented. The United States seemingly does not currently have the infrastructure for internet censorship like China’s Great Firewall. While app stores can take down Chinese apps, current users will still be able to access the already-downloaded software on their phones. They may also, like China’s tech-savvy residents, use a VPN to circumvent blockages. Yet Chinese apps can also choose to proactively block off US users if they have the legal incentive to do so.

While some have been worried that the restrictions will impact other Tencent assets — it has acquired stakes in numerous US companies over the years, including Epic Games, Riot Games, Spotify, and Universal Music, to build up its entertainment empire — the White House clarified to the Los Angeles Times that the executive order only targets transactions with Tencent that are related to WeChat.

To Chinese observers, these US actions show an uncanny resemblance to Beijing’s own internet regulations — which, at times, are also rolled out in the name of national security.

The two executive orders are due to go into effect in 45 days, the elapse of which will allow for a possible partial acquisition of TikTok by Microsoft — a deal from which Trump has ridiculously demanded a cut.

Tianyu Fang
Tianyu M. Fang is a writer and journalist covering Chinese culture, politics, and technology. You can find him on Twitter: @tianyuf.