President Trump released an executive order in regard to the national security risk that China’s social media app “WeChat” poses to the U.S. and its citizens. The original executive order from the White House is linked HERE.
Most people in the U.S. have no need for WeChat nor maybe never heard of it before. However, it is one of the largest social media apps in the world with an estimated 1.3 billion monthly users.
If you live in mainland China, having WeChat is a must as it is the main communication app that also offers many other services such as transferring money, shopping, dining, buying train tickets, movie tickets, paying utility bills and much more. Outside of China there are two groups that also rely heavily on it; Chinese living overseas and global business executives that are doing business with China. In both cases, WeChat is used primarily as a communication device. Some Chinese use it to pay for items purchased in other countries either through an official cross border e-commerce platform or through a private shopper otherwise known as “Daigou“. They also share photos, videos similar to how facebook is used and during holidays send money to family and friends.
So the implications of banning WeChat are much more complicated than banning Tik Tok and will impact not only people but businesses as well. For example, many of the members of the association HPA-China are using WeChat to communicate with their China partners. Because China has banned all foreign social media and communication apps, WeChat is the only main app that can be used globally up until this point. Without WeChat, Chinese will have to get a VPN (which are illegal in China) to allow them access to WhatsApp, Messenger, Skype or other foreign communication app. Zoom was open and gaining popularity especially during COVID-19. However there has been talk that it would shutdown or utilize a China partner to assist with it continuing China service. On August 9, 2020 the association attempted multiple times to connect with a China industry colleague and it wouldn’t connect, so seems it might be having technical troubles or it is in fact being blocked.
Moreover, if the ban goes as far as forcing Apple to remove WeChat from its global app stores, that would essentially kill Apple’s iPhone business in China. Because WeChat is so important in China, no one there would want to buy a phone that cannot download and use WeChat.
As mentioned earlier, China has banned many tech companies from operating in China especially social apps. Google, WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, etc. have all been banned in China for a number of years with little to no reprisals from the U.S. or other foreign governments. The banning of these international apps has allowed China’s domestic apps, search engines and other digital platforms to develop and expand without international competition.
The concern by the U.S. government is that WeChat and other Chinese owned applications are able to collect user information globally, which is then stored on servers located in mainland China. At any point, the Chinese government can gain access to this information. Unlike the U.S., tech companies in China have to comply with the Chinese government.
For example, a Chinese citizen living in the U.S. could be tracked by the Chinese government. The app could report GPS coordinates as well as all the personal photos and messages sent between family and friends on the app. For someone trying to avoid the Chinese government or simply don’t like being spied on, this is of concern. Also many businesses in China use WeChat to communicate with foreign partners about business and trade. These discussions could potentially become subject to security concerns by the U.S. and other nations.
Who knows if this will go through or not. Anyway, I’m sure there will be plenty of push back against the Trump administration by Chinese Americans and businesses like Apple. Add in a good dose of litigation and this could never come to be or at minimum take months or years to happen.
In any event, I would strongly encourage you all to ensure that you have all your family, friends and business contact information in China up to date such as mobile numbers and email addresses. Also planning out an alternative messaging app in combination with a good VPN might become necessary.
If you aren’t too familiar with WeChat, the New York Times has a good overview video of WeChat from 2016. Although the information is four years old, it is still relevant today. Click below to view:
(Source: HPA China)