On July 15th, just two days after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro spoke of possible actions to be taken against Tiktok and Wechat, my mother forwarded me a long, extremely detailed step-by-step guide for downloading and backing up my Wechat data and contacts. The guide has been viewed over 100,000 times since it was first posted.
Frankie Huang was born in Beijing and raised in New Jersey. She is a freelance writer, illustrator, and strategist based in Boston. Her work explores feminism, diaspora identity, and social issues.
“I never believed or worried about a Wechat ban,” my mother remarked after sending it to me.
“So why did you send me that guide?” I asked.
“Just in case,” she replied. “I mean, Trump would do anything to better his chances for a reelection.”
Beneath her feigned nonchalance I noted a familiar anxiety we share.
Yesterday’s executive order from US President Donald Trump, banning “transactions” with Tencent that relate to Wechat, will certainly change her tone. It’s no longer possible to dismiss these fears and paranoia.
Is a Wechat ban likely?
Over the years, Wechat has grown from a simple mobile messaging app to a sprawling super app on which people conduct business, consume content, make monetary transactions, and live their lives. But at its core, it’s about connections between people.
The first blow to Wechat’s global network came from India. On June 29, the Modi government banned Wechat, along with 58 other Chinese apps, in response to tensions in the China-India border.
After weeks of deliberation, the US launched its own assault with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s newly unveiled “Clean Network” initiative, and a freshly released Executive Order that takes direct aim at Wechat. A potential US-based Wechat ban looms darkly as US-China relations traverse increasingly choppy waters.
While discussions of scrubbing China’s digital presence from American networks are still in the conceptual stages, the legality of implementing a sweeping ban remains dubious. Kevin Xu, a seasoned political organizer and a tech startup advisor based in California, offered a measured perspective on what may come to pass, prior to yesterday’s executive order.
“Chances of some sort of ban on Wechat before the election is higher than 50%, but it will likely be partial, for example, banning all Federal employees and/or contractors who do business with the Federal government. It’s hard to know the legality of such a ban, but it’ll likely be made on national security grounds, which has a wide legal leeway.”
In India, Tencent cooperated with the ban, without arguing about its legality. On July 27, the company stopped providing services to India-based users. Will it behave the same way with the US, or mount retaliatory actions? Right now it is impossible to say.
In whatever form it will take, the Wechat ban stands to make a quick splash in the media cycle, allowing President Trump to claim a hollow victory against China while fanning the flames of nationalism in his desperate bid for reelection.
The Chinese government would of course be no worse for wear, it’s the Chinese diaspora in the US who would stand to suffer most under this senseless punishment, depending on how the situation plays out.
Wave of anxiety
Even after reading the new Executive Order from the White House, I don’t really believe a comprehensive Wechat ban will come to pass in 45 days.The dangerous precedent such a move would set will certainly not go unchallenged by lawmakers and business leaders.
But then again, a few months ago I didn’t think a US consulate in China and a Chinese consulate in the US would be shut down within a week, yet here we are. Perhaps I’m still in denial about the new state of affairs.
A ban on Wechat is increasingly likely, but still a ways off. This hasn’t stopped a wave of anxiety from spreading, not only among members of the Chinese community in the US but the Chinese diaspora elsewhere as well.
On the same day I received my mother’s Wechat backup guide, a family friend who lives in Paris phoned me, frantic that she would lose contact with her family in the US. My aunt in Shanghai, whose only daughter lives in San Francisco, asked me for recommendations on alternative messaging platforms.
As we wait for the boot to drop, we don’t know whether families will lose contact, if precious conversation logs will be lost, or if communities will unravel—all for the sake of a political stunt.
At a time when international travel is nigh impossible, our digital bonds become all the more precious and vulnerable. For many Wechat users in the US, it is the only thing that links them with loved ones they may not have seen for months, and may not know when they can finally reunite with. It is an extraordinary cruelty to sever these links at a time when we must lean on these technologies that span the distance we physically cannot travel.
A Chinese American researcher who asked not to be named uses Wechat to connect with her large extended family in Beijing, and to update them on her pregnancy. “A Wechat ban would devastate my grandma,” she told me. “She’s already so worried that I will give birth here while the pandemic is not under control.”
In the event of an all-out Wechat ban, users may still find a way around it. Chinese internet users are famously resourceful, owing in no small part to having to navigate the heavily censored digital landscape of China. Using a VPN, or switching to alternative platforms such as Line and Whatsapp are viable contingency options.
One may even see a silver lining in all of this. Since Wechat content is regularly monitored and censored by the Chinese government even when users are abroad, switching to a new platform would afford them more privacy and freedom to discuss sensitive topics.
But there’s little point in recognizing the inadvertent upsides for anyone who must involuntarily stop using Wechat, especially given the implications—rising political volatility will bring further infringements upon personal liberties.
As the Chinese diaspora’s ability to connect is jeopardized, their relationship with the US grows more fraught.
For many, there is no end in sight. “What happened to this ‘lighthouse nation’ (referring to the US’ status as a beacon of liberty)? Ban Chinese apps today, ban Chinese people tomorrow?” asked one commenter on CReader.net, a popular overseas Chinese news aggregate and forum.
“Normally I would believe that the government has some kind of bottom line, but Trump doesn’t even care if he is making America a laughing stock to the entire world,” Zhou, a scientist at Columbia University who only gave her surname, told me over Wechat.
The tension between the US and Chinese governments will almost certainly lead to harsh demands for the Chinese diaspora in the US to demonstrate loyalty, something former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang advocated for in the face of growing anti-Asian sentiments.
But this is an impossible and humiliating choice for those whose lives and identities straddle nationalities, and it would accomplish nothing. If President Trump believes continually demonstrating open hostility to all entities of Chinese origin will win him votes, he will not stop at a WeChat ban.
For now, there’s little to be done except dutifully go through the 17 steps it takes to download Wechat data, and anxiously await what comes next.