‘Irreplaceable’: U.S. WeChat users struggle to imagine life without the app Trump wants to ban
Every winter, when the Lunar New Year comes around, Shuyi’s 80-person WeChat group of extended family lights up with celebratory messages and “red envelopes,” digital versions of the red-packeted cash gifts that are central to the traditional Chinese holiday.
Shuyi and her relatives send each other red envelopes on WeChat, a messaging app, sometimes using a playful function where the first person to “snatch” the envelope gets the digital money.
For Shuyi, a recent college graduate living in New York City, it’s a simple way to keep a tradition going with loved ones who live thousands of miles away, some of whom she has not seen in years.
Shuyi, who asked that her last name not be included owing to the political sensitivity of the issue, is now worried that connection will be severed by the executive order President Donald Trump signed last week to ban U.S. individuals and companies from “any transaction” with WeChat, which is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings.
Shuyi’s concern is shared by many U.S. WeChat users. The app has over 1 billion users worldwide and is the primary mode of communication for individuals in the U.S. whose professional or personal networks extend to China, including Chinese citizens living in the U.S. and many of the 3 million U.S. citizens of Chinese origin. WeChat averaged 19 million daily active users in the U.S. in the past three months.
Since Trump signed the order, WeChat users have begun posting their contact information for other messaging apps and planning ways to keep in touch with older, tech-shy relatives in China. But WeChat is “irreplaceable,” said Shuyi.
“WeChat really is the most intimate form of connection for many of us,” Shuyi said.
There is no U.S. app equivalent to WeChat—it’s a messaging tool, but it’s also a social media platform, a payment service, a news source, and host to an array of “mini-apps,” from mobile games to government-run health codes for coronavirus contact tracing and quarantine enforcement. Users in China can buy plane tickets, order groceries, book medical appointments, and hail cabs without ever exiting the app.
And currently, it’s one of the few apps that bridges the technological divide between China and the U.S.
The Chinese government’s system of Internet controls, known as the “Great Firewall of China,” blocks access to most popular U.S. social media and messaging platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, and Google-owned services like Gmail. Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime work in China, but those apps require iPhone users on both ends.
Email is scarcely used in China—the country’s Internet users largely leapfrogged PCs and moved straight to mobile communication—and a majority of companies and local governments use WeChat to communicate and make announcements. Even the U.S. embassy in China has an official WeChat account.
WeChat is ubiquitous among Chinese mobile users—79% of them regularly use the app. WeChat parent Tencent launched the app (known as Weixin in China) in January 2011, latching on to the rapid growth in Chinese sales of smartphones like Apple’s iPhone. WeChat’s user base surged a few months later when Tencent added a voice messaging function. WeChat’s popularity continued to rise, thanks to innovative app updates and the decade’s mobile wave.
WeChat’s voice message function is an important tool for Shuyi—she grew up in the U.S. and is “not 100% literate” in written Chinese, and some of her older relatives who didn’t attend school can’t read the written language. Instead, they record and send voice messages to one another in Fuzhounese, the Chinese dialect that her family speaks.
Shuyi uses WeChat every day to talk to her parents and cousins in the U.S. and her relatives in the coastal province of Fujian in southeastern China.
Before WeChat, Shuyi’s family would buy minutes of call time through a phone company when they needed to talk to relatives in China. It was expensive, she says, and made communication with family in China more difficult.
Shuyi is worried that a U.S. ban on WeChat will make it harder to connect with her relatives in China, who may not have the means to purchase and use a virtual private network (VPN), a tool that helps users bypass location-based Internet controls.
The scope of Trump’s executive order is not yet known, but it “could impact the ability of U.S. persons to download or utilize the apps,” according to a briefing from international law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP.
If the ban takes effect, Apple and Google will have to remove WeChat from their app stores. U.S. cloud providers may be forced to stop providing services to WeChat, and the U.S. government could order U.S. telecommunications providers to block traffic from WeChat, according to a report from Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
“[WeChat is] the only app that we can download and [family in China] can download…This is so important for people with family and friends overseas in China, because how else are we going to communicate with them?” Shuyi said.
Stephanie, 21, a Chinese-American student who lives in Los Angeles, moved from China to the U.S. when she was 7 and initially relied on email or expensive international calls to talk to her father in Beijing. (She asked that her last name not be included owing to political sensitivities.) The limited forms of communication back then often left her feeling “alienated” from her home and her family.
WeChat was “life-changing,” Stephanie said. It “allowed spontaneous communication” with her family in China and helped her keep up her Chinese language skills. “It allows me to express myself,” she said.
For other WeChat users, the app is a vital business tool.
Joseph, 24, says it’s a crucial source of income. Joseph, who also asked that his last name not be included owing to political sensitivity, lives in New York City and works part-time for a Chinese company that helps students in China apply for U.S. universities. All his work is conducted over WeChat, from talking to students about their essays to communicating with his bosses, who are all in China.
Joseph says he will purchase a VPN if WeChat is blocked in the U.S., but he’s not sure it will work. If he loses the job because he can’t access WeChat, he said, “I’m quite worried I won’t be able to pay rent.”
Cameron, an American who has bounced between China and the U.S. for the past 10 years, owns an apartment in China and uses WeChat to pay property fees and make other payments. He communicates with friends in China every day on WeChat, and plans to download and use a VPN if the U.S. blocks access to the app.
“People can’t simply just switch to another application,” said Cameron, who also asked that his last name not be included over political sensitivity concerns.
In his executive order, Trump said WeChat poses a national security risk to the U.S., accusing it of being used in “disinformation campaigns,” censoring content, and collecting user data and sharing it with China’s government. WeChat says it stores U.S. user data on servers outside China and has denied allegations that it shares U.S. user data with the Chinese government.
Tencent shares plunged on news of the executive order on Friday and dropped again on Monday. The Hong Kong–listed company released a statement on Friday saying it was “reviewing the potential consequences of the executive order to develop a fuller understanding of its impact.”
Shuyi isn’t concerned by the claims that WeChat poses a data security risk to American users. “I don’t think it’s just a WeChat issue,” Shuyi said. “[U.S.] tech companies share and sell our data all the time, whether it’s with the [U.S.] government or other corporations and other businesses.”
Stephanie said she considers the potential WeChat ban a violation of U.S. free speech norms: “If we’re talking about free speech, why are you banning this platform for Asian-Americans who are just trying to reach out to their family?”
Tong Pow, a software engineer in San Francisco whose family lives in China, says many of his friends on WeChat are posting messages on the app urging contacts to add them on other apps like Line, a South Korean messaging app popular in Japan, and QQ, another Tencent-owned messaging app.
On a personal level, Pow is worried about keeping in touch with older relatives in China who have gotten accustomed to using WeChat. He says he will likely “resort to international calls again” to talk to them, and although “it’s not impossible to reach them…it feels like we are being cut off [and] regressing to the pre-Internet era before WeChat single-handedly connected us through group chats, calls, and stories.”
Pow says he understands some of the data privacy concerns about WeChat, but thinks there must be better solutions than a blanket ban, which he sees as a way for the Trump administration to signal it is “tough on China.” Pow says he is “saddened and worried” that the bans could lead to a larger trend in which the Internet is “partitioned by borders, moving further and further away from a more open and universal Internet that we were used to.”
Unlike a ban on TikTok, which isn’t available in China, a WeChat ban will have ramifications beyond the U.S., changing how some people in China use the app day-to-day. A U.S. ban of a high-profile app owned by Tencent, China’s most valuable Internet company, risks exacerbating the already rapid deterioration of U.S.-China relations and accelerating the two countries’ “technological cold war.”
Because WeChat isn’t just a messaging device, but also a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram where people post life updates, pictures, and videos, Pow said even if his relatives switch to another app to keep in contact, he will be cut off from the “network” of friends and family on WeChat.
Pow added, “The warm and fuzzy feeling of exchanging or [receiving] a virtual [red envelope] is something that I’d miss.”
More must-read international coverage from Fortune:
- Chinese factories’ COVID comeback defies the global downturn
- The U.K. lifted border controls just as COVID took off. Lawmakers call this “a serious error”
- China’s U.S. energy imports are 95% below what it promised in the phase 1 trade deal
- Google faces EU antitrust probe over the data implications of its Fitbit buy
- COVID-19 is killing journalists in prisons, compounding the threat of attacks on the press