The Trump administration is dangling the threat of a ban over WeChat. If implemented, it will still be usable, but without available updates on the App Store it will quickly become obsolete and unusable. The reason provided is quite simple (unsurprisingly) - it is owned by a Chinese company and poses an alleged threat to national security.
The same threat hangs over the head of some other app called TikTok, there is a slight chance you might have heard of it with its viral popularity.
The questionable legitimacy of Trump’s reasons aside, the ban will inflict enormous harm on overseas Chinese and Chinese Americans (banning WeChat not TikTok!). WeChat, with more than a billion users globally and 20 million in the USA, doesn’t have a single, primary function like most apps- it is the app for everything. From familiar social networking features like messaging and sharing content, to more ambitious aspects like digital transactions (through which roughly US$50 billion passed in 2018) and privately created ‘mini programs’ that work as apps within the app - WeChat’s stature over the Chinese digital media world is hard to overstate.
For the international Chinese diaspora, WeChat is the only medium of regular, swift communication with friends, family and work colleagues on the mainland. In a culture where the importance of maintaining extended family ties is frequently emphasised - for utilitarian as well as social reasons - WeChat provides a vital service that is difficult to replicate, and it is by now deeply woven into the everyday lives of those with ties to the mainland.
Since the executive order was signed in August, overseas Chinese and Chinese Americans have voiced concern over the lack of obvious alternatives to regular contact with the mainland, at a time when they have been unable to travel and see anyone there since January. Alternatives do exist - VPNs, e-mails and, well, physical mail - but these are slow and cumbersome. Does the Trump administration seriously expect elderly grandparents in rural Hunan to speak to their families thousands of miles away using a VPN without running into problems?
It’s a trick question. They don’t care. The WeChat ban is only the latest in a long pattern of xenophobic rhetoric and legislation by the US conservative base against Asian-Americans - the Trump administration’s poorly masked racism, ramped up in the wake of the pandemic, has emboldened white supremacy and hate. In July, Pew Research reported that 39% of Asian-Americans have felt increased racial tension since the pandemic took hold, and a similar number report being discriminated against on some level based on their race. Whilst these statistics draw from the entire Asian diaspora, which usually fails to capture the complexities of the whole community, the problem in this case extends beyond Chinese-Americans- racists aren’t very good at distinguishing between ethnicities, and they don’t really care. The consequences of policies like the WeChat ban are more far-reaching than appears.
And here’s the thing - the supposed gain in national security from this ban is insignificant. .After all, nothing says ‘national populism’ quite like ‘ineffective policies that mostly just harm the marginalized, actually.’ Infuriatingly, this argument misses the point. China is an extensively authoritarian state - its data and censorship laws are considerably intrusive, forcing apps under its jurisdiction (particularly WeChat due to its stature) to monitor content and collect data intrusively. Global tools, out of the government’s reach, like Google, Facebook and Wikipedia are blocked by China’s ‘Great Firewall’, forcing users to sacrifice some personal security and freedom in order to maintain their basic connections with the mainland but banning WeChat - or TikTok, for that matter - will not address the problem.
Fortunately, the executive order has been challenged and halted (temporarily at least) by a California judge on such grounds. Yet Trump’s intentions are laid bare. The ban is a functionally cosmetic, highly visible attempt to pander to a domestic right-wing base with little concern for the welfare of those outside their bubble. Addressing the question of national security requires a complex understanding of the dynamics of the China-US relationship, and of the people caught in between. Frankly, the only way to ensure total security is to decouple the two economies entirely (for the record, that’s also a really bad idea)- engagement by both governments is the only realistic path towards a (relatively) peaceful and (relatively) uncostly solution, but neither seem particularly interested in that.
That Hunanese grandma sending her children in New York cat gifs is not a security threat.