Following the “Clean Network Program” initiative from the U.S. Department of State, the Trump administration further escalated its aggression against Chinese mobile applications, particularly WeChat and TikTok. On August 6, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order addressing the threat posed by WeChat. Accusing WeChat and TikTok of censoring political content and identifying them as potential vectors for disinformation campaigns, the Trump administration prohibited transactions related to WeChat by any person or property subject to the jurisdiction of the United States after 45 days.
There are many details yet to be released by U.S. officials about implementing the executive order. It remains unclear what actions are considered to be transactions. And the impact that the executive order will have on average WeChat users is also vague. But many view the order as a plan to ban WeChat from operating in the United States.
A petition calling the federal government not to ban WeChat has received 60,415 signatures as of August 10. “While Chinese Americans can give up a leisure app among the many that exist, they cannot give up the only app linking them to their families in China,” the petition argues. “During this pandemic, WeChat plays an even more important role in helping families stay connected and updated.”
Different from TikTok, most Americans are not familiar with WeChat, a mobile application developed by the Chinese company Tencent. A Statista Survey in 2018 shows that 87 percent of U.S. internet users have never used the application, and only 4 percent of the surveyed individuals use WeChat every day.
The majority of WeChat users in the United States, and other democratic countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, are Chinese-speaking immigrants with significant ties with the People’s Republic of China. In other words, expanding on its success in China, WeChat arrived in the United States, Canada, and many other countries through immigration. The Chinese mobile application has shaped the Chinese communities in these countries significantly. Instead of searching through yellow pages, local community bulletin boards, and online forums, newcomers with language barriers can now find many services available through the application. From buying groceries to purchasing a property, WeChat can help.
Thus WeChat is more than a mobile application used to send messages to friends and relatives. It also includes functions to send and collect payments, as well as sharing words, pictures, and videos on your friends’ content feed. WeChat is a super app that covers the feature of several mobile applications that we are more familiar with.
While WeChat facilitates daily life for many of its users, the application is also involved in several significant issues. WeChat has not been able to successfully combat misinformation, fake news, and hateful messages, which are prevalent on the platform. Because WeChat posts target users who may have difficulties in reading local newspapers and conducting fact-check research, misinformation on WeChat — from misinformation on drugs to fake news regarding COVID-19 — is concerning and may cause more damage to democratic institutions.
Censorship from the Chinese government is the other significant problem facing WeChat. The Citizen Lab from the University of Toronto conducted in-depth research on WeChat’s efforts to use overseas data to boost its censorship apparatus. In addition to censoring articles, websites, and social media posts critical of the Chinese government, WeChat also stores, monitors, and intercepts messages in private conversations between individual users. With no protection of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, WeChat also became a tool for Chinese state media to reach out to the country’s overseas diaspora groups. While WeChat denies censorship allegations, numerous and robust evidence suggests otherwise.
Those issues are not only raising flags in the United States but also are recognized by other countries around the world. Canada’s House of Commons directed members of parliament and staff not to use WeChat due to cybersecurity risks. Australian media The Canberra Times calls WeChat the “channel for China disinformation campaigns.”
The petition pleading with the U.S. government not to ban WeChat is right about one thing: WeChat is one of the few mobile applications that can be used by users both in and outside of China. But it would not be fair to blame the outsized impact of potentially banning WeChat on the Trump administration. China’s Great Firewall prevents other messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Telegram from operating in China. With its major competitors blocked in China, WeChat obtained unfair advantages by complying with Chinese government censorship and influence operations. WeChat is very unlikely to disobey orders and censorship requests from the Chinese government — and that leaves other countries with limited options to regulate the mobile application.
While WeChat serves as a tool for people to connect through the Great Firewall, it does not exonerate the application from engaging in mass censorship and influence campaigns in the free world. Democratic countries, including the United States, must step up and investigate further options to maintain their democratic integrity while minimizing the cost and inconvenience that any proposed policies may bring to diaspora groups.