Late Thursday earlier this week, the Trump administration issued a pair of sweeping executive orders banning transactions with the Chinese social network, WeChat and TikTok — unless they come up with a resolution that the U.S. doesn’t deem is a national security threat within 45 days.
While Microsoft is expected to bail TikTok out, WeChat’s future in the United States hangs in the balance. The abrupt and precarious circumstances have sent a wave of panic through the reported 3.8 million members of the Chinese diaspora in the country for whom WeChat is the only link to their friends and family back home in China.
A period of turmoil for Chinese-Americans
Gwen Dekker, a 24-year-old software engineer from Boston, and his wife, an immigrant from China, regularly turn to WeChat for talking and staying in touch with the latter’s family. “She’s very close to her parents, and video calls her mom almost every day. My wife is already doing her best in a foreign country, cutting off contact with her parents would just be too much for her,” Dekker told Digital Trends.
Moments after Trump signed the executive order, people of Chinese descent in the United States scrambled to let their loved ones know about the potential ban and shared their alternate contact information in social groups on WeChat that they have been part of for years — and may soon disappear from.
Since most people from China sign up for WeChat as soon as they log on to the internet for the first time, they don’t even bother to store contacts on their phones. Therefore, the minute Trump’s ban became official, the first task at hand for these WeChat users in the U.S. was to simply share their local phone numbers and email addresses with friends and families.
“WeChat is non-comparable among Chinese. It is the most important social network or for some people, the most important app,” says Xiaoran Sun, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Data Science Institute. “I have many friends as contacts on WeChat and I didn’t even need to keep their phone numbers because we just use WeChat as the primary communication channel.”
No replacements for a super-app like WeChat
The true extent of the devastating effect a WeChat ban would have, however, is far greater than many think. At about 19 million users, WeChat doesn’t have a massive user base in the United States, relative to other platforms. But for the millions of Chinese-Americans and immigrants, it’s everything.
That’s because WeChat is more than just an IM service. It’s a super app — a term reserved for hub-like platforms that offer a wide variety of main functions. Facebook, for instance, is a social network. Apple’s iMessage is for texting. WeChat is a social network, a messaging service, a payment platform, an e-commerce marketplace, and much more, all packaged into a single app.
So how do you even replace an app like that? The answer is you can’t.
“My WeChat is my Rolodex and my keeper. It holds years and years of conversations, financial transactions, and job communication. It is basically my email, phone, text, bank, twitter, and much more, all rolled into one. There are no other alternatives that work as well,” Matt William Knowles, a 34-year-old actor from Los Angeles who frequently signs on to projects in China, said in an emailed conversation with Digital Trends.
There are no natural alternatives to WeChat, and losing access to it will dramatically sever ties with home for Chinese-Americans. They won’t be able to keep up with updates from their communities and will lose touch with friends and family they don’t necessarily talk to every other day. Western platforms such as Facebook or WhatsApp are all blocked in China.
WeChat users in the U.S. also rely on the app for payments and to send or receive money from home — especially students who have just relocated 7,000 miles across the world to the United States.
“My wife also uses it to transfer money to people for second-hand buying and selling. It’s especially useful for people who are just moving to the U.S., where there are so limited resources to help foreigners navigate how to live in this country,” added Dekker.
If the United States does go ahead with an end-to-end ban on WeChat, the only workaround would be to resort to workarounds like VPN.
But no one knows whether a VPN would even allow you to circumvent the ban. Therefore, in anticipation of the uncertain ban, young Chinese immigrants in the U.S. have also begun teaching their parents and other relatives how to operate alternative apps like WhatsApp over a VPN or iMessage that does work without a VPN, albeit limited to Apple device owners. However, that has been a challenge, to say the least.
In more ways than one, WeChat is the internet for Chinese citizens. Many, predominately the older generation, are not even familiar with any alternate platforms.
Daphne K. Lee, a New York City and Taipei-based journalist is worried about how she will remotely guide her elderly family members to switch to another platform.
“They’re not really shifting to other platforms yet since they’re not that tech-savvy. Some of them literally have only ever used WeChat. It would be hard to coordinate a messaging-app exodus, like some of my relatives don’t even know what a VPN is,” she said.
What’s more, it’s not about just communication with people in China. Chinese-Americans depend on WeChat to network in their local communities and to coordinate gatherings and events for Chinese festivals. These groups and conversations too will have to migrate to another platform.
“Because so many first-generation Chinese immigrants rely on the app, it will also be a hindrance to community organizing within Chinese American communities. Though they’re free to switch to other platforms, the networks are already there,” Tianyu M. Fang, a freelance writer and journalist from Boston told Digital Trends.
A virtual bridge to home collapses
More importantly, due to the equivocal nature of President Trump’s executive order, none of them know what to expect. While most have begun gearing up for a complete ban, there are still some who are optimistic and hoping that this would somehow play out in WeChat’s favor before the set deadline.
However, all of them feel like their own country is turning its back on them, and find the move a reckless one that is just another installment in the growing state of a prejudiced society. As the coronavirus pandemic grinds on, the frequency of their conversations with folks back in China has also soared, and a WeChat ban will cripple that communication bridge entirely.
“The pandemic already put a damper on communications with my Chinese friends and colleagues. With all the travel bans, the world feels lonelier than ever. The banning of WeChat will just make things worse,” added Knowles.