Asia Life | Politics | Society

Beyond Data Privacy: Trump’s Proposed Ban of WeChat 

The broader success factors behind Tencent and WeChat indicate alternative motivations for Trump’s proposed ban.

Layne Vandenberg
Beyond Data Privacy: Trump’s Proposed Ban of WeChat 

Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing, in a Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 file photo.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

Last week, Donald Trump announced plans to ban downloads of the Chinese-owned mobile applications TikTok and WeChat in what appeared to be a tool for political leverage in an era of tense Sino-U.S. relations. On Sunday, the possibility of bans on either app was brought to a halt; TikTok made a deal with Oracle, and a U.S. federal judge blocked the ban of WeChat.

The Trump administration claimed its aim was to combat the possibility that the two Chinese-owned apps are collecting data from American users that could be given to the Chinese government. Trump’s threats particularly targeted WeChat (known in Chinese as 微信, or “micro-message”), a mobile app launched by the Shenzhen-based company Tencent. A deeper dive into WeChat and Tencent, however, reveal that the application and its mother company represent more than just instruments of control by Chinese political bodies through “Big Brother” surveillance. In their recent article, “The path to WeChat: How Tencent’s culture shaped the most popular Chinese app, 1998–2011,” Gianluigi Negro, Gabriele Balbi, and Paolo Bory showcase how WeChat’s success factors reflect  nuanced digital media outside of Western contexts. Through this lens, Trump’s ban reflects the logic that national security is not only threatened by concerns about data privacy, but also the influences of non-Western digital media in the West.

With a market value of over $460 billion, WeChat is the third richest company in China in the internet services sector — behind giants JD and Alibaba — and the sixth largest worldwide. Known for its variety of uses, WeChat has established itself as the premier Chinese messaging app with 1.2 billion users, a user base rivalling Facebook, WhatsApp, and Messenger. In comparison to TikTok, which has become a widespread social media staple for Gen Z users around the world, WeChat’s 1.2 billion users are largely domestic and diasporic Chinese. 

As identified by Negro, Balbi, and Bory, WeChat rose to its dominant position thanks to four pillars in Tencent’s market strategy: mobility, media convergence, community building and gamification, and Sinicization. While issues related to “mobility” are the cited reasons for Trump’s ban, the other factors reveal possible alternative motives for banning the two apps. 

Mobility

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The immediate reason for Trump’s ban — the potential of American data being accessed by the Chinese government — is founded in Tencent’s early technology, QQ. Originally an instant messaging service, QQ first allowed users to save a series of data related to online conversations, reopen them, and use them on different devices, giving rise to “nomadic need for access and connectivity” through an early cloud-computing strategy. This same cloud-computing power underlies the technology behind WeChat today, and the pervasive use of WeChat by 1.2 billion users makes this cloud computing more formidable as it hosts more data of more users. This logic is the primary reason behind the ban, attempting to shut down the inclusion of American data into the Tencent QQ cloud. 

Media Convergence

Tencent integrated two types of media convergence into its model to make WeChat the holistic app it is today. On a technical level, in 2001 Tencent launched Mobile OICQ, which later made it possible to use and sync the WeChat app on smartphones with WeChat Web on PCs. In regard to services, Tencent invested significantly in other services including blogs, social networks, online gaming, search engines, and even email. Thanks to this arsenal of technological overlap, QQ became a primary platform for communication and information exchange, and over two-thirds of internet users in China are using Tencent services. WeChat is thus threatening because it incorporates media convergence into its DNA, and without a way to decouple Tencent’s OICQ from WeChat, banning the app remains the most viable option to bring the platform to a standstill in the United States.     

Tencent’s embrace of this culture behind media convergence created the perfect opportunity for the vast proliferation of one dominant platform: WeChat. Tencent’s successful, all-in-one model poses a greater threat given its monopolistic market share and the centralization of information on a single platform. While this could speak to data privacy and collection, it also represents a sharp rebuke of the Western system of capitalist, market-based competition. Trump’s threats miss a key point: ByteDance and Tencent are both private companies, not state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Both companies “being’” Chinese — even though both are also multinational — has paved the way for Trump to assert that they are beholden to the Chinese government. The spread of this incomplete perception particularly perpetuates fear mongering among the American public, successfully driving a wedge between “Western” versus “Chinese” technology and capabilities. 

Community Building and Gamification

By providing a virtual social fabric through massive multiplayer online games and mini games, Tencent enshrined its services among a generation molded by the “one child policy” that sought to establish social links through social networks. Tencent also paved the way for online payment systems, first developing a virtual currency (QQ 币) to appeal to a growing user base with disposable income. This development laid the groundwork for WeChat’s current transfer function, known as WeChat Pay, which allows users to transfer Chinese renminbi directly through their linked Chinese bank account. WeChat Pay is now used around the world for not only user-to-user payments, but also as a fundamental point of sale system. 

After a ban, the WeChat app would have been unavailable for new downloads and other routine updates, in addition to banning companies from hosting WeChat internet traffic and blocking WeChat Pay transactions. A ban would thus directly and disproportionately target WeChat’s community-building and payment functions, cutting off a primarily Chinese user base from their wider network. It is for these reasons that a U.S. federal judge ruled that banning WeChat may impede users’ First Amendment rights, temporarily neutralizing Trump’s ban. The attempt to weaken and even disintegrate what serves as the primary source of communication for a particularly Chinese user base ultimately rationalizes discrimination under the guise of the criminalization of the app. 

Sinicization

Tencent’s rise has been defined by its conflicting desire to differentiate itself from its Western counterparts while simultaneously appropriating Western digital culture. By “Sinicizing” Western digital culture to a Chinese social, political, and economic context, Tencent “reinterpreted and promoted innovation, giving new products specific roles and meanings in new cultures.” Western companies, however, cried appropriation, resulting in cases of plagiarism and legal clashes with U.S. companies that drew domestic criticism within China. 

The Sinicization of Tencent’s services pose a direct conflict to Western forms of digital media. Despite uncanny similarities to Western technologies, Tencent crystallized its positioning as distinctly Chinese by developing Chinese services for the Chinese context.

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A U.S. ban of WeChat is thus also a ban on the world’s largest non-Western digital media company. WeChat represents broader fears about the influences of non-Western digital media specifically in the West.