After politicians in the US spent months grilling TikTok about privacy, censorship, and other concerns, another Chinese app was also recently caught up in the fray: WeChat. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently said that people should “expect strong action” on WeChat and TikTok, leading to questions about possible app bans in the US.
Losing access to Tencent’s messaging app probably won’t frustrate Gen Z and millennial Americans as much as losing TikTok. But it could still be a blow to millions of people in the US who need WeChat to stay in touch with friends, family, and business contacts in China.
“I have quite a few groups that I connect with via WeChat: my family in China, my friends in China, my Chinese friends who are here in North America, or around the world for that matter,” said a Chinese-Canadian working in the US who asked for anonymity because of the topic’s political sensitivity.
For many people in China, WeChat is more than just a messaging app. It’s the largest social network in the country and a kind of Swiss Army knife of an app that lets people use mobile payments in stores, pay bills online, hail taxis, and more. Since the app is dominant in China, talks of a possible WeChat ban in the US has some people trying to figure out if there are any good alternatives or whether they’ll need a VPN.
The problem for the Chinese diaspora is that many popular social networks and chat apps are banned in China. Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and just about anything from Google are all unavailable in the country. China has even banned Line, which is most widely used in certain Asian countries like Japan and Thailand.
Instead of relying on contacts to be tech-savvy enough to use a VPN and get around the China’s Great Firewall, many people just resort to using WeChat. But now WeChat users outside China are imagining the headaches of using a VPN themselves.
The Chinese-Canadian in the US said that he has been discussing with family members about possible alternatives to WeChat in case the app is banned. It may take some time to find a reliable alternative, he said.
“I feel like WeChat is an app that has an extraordinary penetration rate among Chinese people,” he added. “It almost doesn’t matter where you are or where they are, using WeChat is almost an inevitable characteristic of Chinese folks.”
Individuals aren’t the only ones who could be affected by a WeChat ban. It would also be a big blow to some businesses both in China and the US.
Some American businesses use WeChat to reach Chinese customers. And Chinese businesses also often rely on the app to reach overseas Chinese.
College Daily, a popular online publication that operates in Beijing and New York targeting Chinese students in North America, said a ban would have an impact on operations that’s hard to predict.
With patriotic, tabloid-style daily updates about international affairs and student life for overseas Chinese, the publication has drawn more than 1.6 million followers on WeChat and more than a million daily active readers, according to a report by the New Yorker from August of last year.
A Beijing-based editor at College Daily who declined to be named told us that about 880,000 of the publication’s followers are outside China. The editor didn’t specify how many followers are in the US. During the 2018–2019 school year, there were more than 369,500 Chinese students studying abroad in the US, according to the Institute of International Education.
“Countries are becoming more and more independent and isolated. It used to be us who hop the wall,” the Beijing-based editor said, referencing China’s Great Firewall. “If WeChat really gets banned in the US, many Chinese people living in the US may have to hop back into the wall.”
Tencent declined to comment for this story.
For now, it remains unclear how or even if the US might try banning WeChat. Some business professionals say the response from users would depend on how it’s implemented. A ban from app stores similar to the TikTok ban in India would mean existing WeChat users who already have the app downloaded wouldn’t be affected. Some people think restrictions might only apply to government institutions and certain companies.
“I have faith in the US system. It probably won’t go as far as requiring VPNs,” said a Chinese executive at a gaming startup in the US who asked to remain anonymous.
However the situation plays out, the lack of clarity right now has some people rattled. Some have taken to Twitter to ask how they can stay in touch with their contacts in the event of a ban. Others also expressed distrust about how the US might handle the issue.
“It would be a pretty big hit on the US’s reputation in internet freedom and racism,” said the Chinese-Canadian. “I feel like a lot of folks in my circle are mocking the US for gradually becoming unpredictable and unreliable. This would add to that.”
This article was first published by Abacus.