Trump WeChat ban ‘an unwelcome signal’ for Chinese community
For the global Chinese community, WeChat is more than a chat app – it’s often the primary means of staying in touch with friends and family back home.
So last week’s decision by US President Donald Trump to order American companies to stop doing business with WeChat generated shockwaves.
“WeChat has become the ‘it’ tool for Chinese-speaking people no matter where you are in the world,” a Shanghai resident told the BBC.
The billion-user app is primarily a social networking platform, but it can be used for a variety of daily activities such as shopping, gaming, and even dating.
But WeChat has a less innocent side. It is considered a key tool of China’s domestic surveillance apparatus.
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In an executive order, President Trump called WeChat a threat to US national security and accused it of collecting “vast chunks” of user data, threatening Americans’ personal and proprietary information.
WeChat owner TenCent was ordered to sell the app by mid-September or face a ban on US operations.
The decision to block WeChat, an important example of Chinese technological innovation, is seen by many Chinese as an attack on their culture, people and state. In response to President Trump, the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused America of using national security as a cover to exercise hegemony.
The Chinese diaspora in the US has been shocked by the move and many people are worried, not just about staying in touch with loved ones, but what this means for China-US relations.
‘An unwelcome signal’
Jennie, 21, is a University of California student and learned order while browsing WeChat.
“At first I didn’t think it was true,” he told the BBC. “Then I felt very angry.”
Jennie spends about four hours a day on WeChat, using it to contact people in the US and China. It is also a vital source of information and spends a lot of time reading articles posted on public accounts of Chinese media, content creators, and businesses.
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On the anniversary day of the Tiananmen massacre, Jennie wrote a commemoration sentence. He was quickly removed and his entire public account vanished.
She told the BBC that she was “very worried” that WeChat will share her information with the Chinese government, but she strongly opposes America blocking the app.
“It would be similar to what China does: censor,” Jennie said.
It was posting to its public account, until it was censored by WeChat two years ago.
Jennie believes there should be an alternative to dealing with WeChat’s threats, in addition to banning it altogether.
“I wanted to study in the US because of its openness, but this move blew my bubble.”
This sense of disappointment is shared by other Chinese immigrants to the United States.
“I thought America was culturally inclusive,” says Miley Song, a Chinese immigrant to California. Washington’s move sends “an unwelcome signal” to Chinese immigrants in the country, he believes.
The 30-year-old stay-at-home mom often uses the app to connect with her parents in China, who were in a panic after hearing about Trump’s executive order.
But Ms. Song says she is cautiously optimistic. “The ban seems very vague, I think it might be difficult to completely ban WeChat,” he says, “We’ll wait and see.”
While she isn’t particularly concerned about the ban, she is concerned about what it means for her future in America.
In the midst of a pandemic and with the presidential election on the way, Ms. Song thinks the Trump administration is trying to divert attention from rising death tolls and declining polls.
“Otherwise, why has Trump focused on cracking down on Chinese apps now?”
“It is fully integrated into people’s lives”
Concern also among those who have returned to China after living and studying in America.
Rachel spent 10 years in the United States, many of which as a student in the capital, Washington, DC.
Now at home in Shanghai, WeChat has become “fully integrated into people’s daily lives,” he told the BBC.
“If you live in China, you can’t go anywhere without two main apps: one is WeChat, the other is AliPay,” Rachel said. “If you want to buy a bottle of milk, open WeChat Pay or AliPay to scan the QR code and pay, and most stores don’t accept cash.”
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WeChat is also being used as a monitoring tool to help the government contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Although President Trump’s order will have little impact on her day-to-day activities in China, Rachel said it could become more difficult to connect with people in the United States. As a result, he said some are exploring alternatives such as the Line communication app or VPN, virtual private networks that mask the computer’s location.
“It’s sad it’s going like this,” Rachel said. “I see both sides, there is always good and bad in both societies, and I want to be neutral, but it is getting harder and harder to become neutral.”