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Chinese Americans look to new platforms as WeChat's future remains uncertain

The ban "significantly weakens the fabric of the Chinese immigrant community" in America, says one expert.
Image: WeChat app
WeChat app.Florence Lo / Reuters

Back in April, when New York City was in the grips of COVID-19, Yuan Mingyue relied on WeChat to keep in touch with relatives in China, to check on their health and to share how things were in New York.

The social media app's video call function, similar to FaceTime, proved especially useful as a lifeline for Yuan, who came to the United States 10 years ago and lives in Queens, once America's center for Covid-19.

While FaceTime works for Apple customers, not everyone in China owns an iPhone or another Apple device.

So when President Donald Trump's WeChat ban was to take effect Sundayeven as a federal judge temporarily put the brakes on his order — Yuan began the dizzying task, like so many other Chinese Americans, of figuring out workarounds.

"We can use other Chinese platforms, like Sina Weibo or QQ, or otherwise just make a phone call," Yuan said in Mandarin.

"I use WeChat just to send messages and videos," she said. "But I do feel it seems the ban will cause some discomfort for all Chinese people."

To be sure, WeChat isn't gone, at least not yet.

The app, developed by the Chinese company Tencent and released in 2011, is a hugely popular choice among Chinese and Chinese Americans, who use it to stay in touch with relatives in China, where platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are blocked.

With more than 1 billion users, most of them Chinese speakers, WeChat can also be used to buy groceries and pay bills, and it's where many Chinese-language speakers get their news.

In August, Trump issued an executive order banning American downloads and use of WeChat and the widely popular app TikTok for financial purposes because of national security concerns.

Zhang Chi, a former fellow at Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who wrote a 2018 study that examined misinformation and political polarization on WeChat, said many WeChat users spent the past weekend trying to wrap their heads around what the ban might entail.

She said they went about learning new platforms, migrating their groups and contacts and figuring out what to do with money stored on WeChat Pay, which lets users transfer funds to one another and make payments with smartphones.

A WeChat ban, Zhang said, does more than just sever connections with family and friends back in China.

"It also significantly weakens the fabric of the Chinese immigrant community here in the U.S.," Zhang wrote in an email.

Some Chinese American WeChat users disagree.

"It's more complicated than that," said George Shen, who emigrated from China nearly 30 years ago and works in the technology field. "I really see WeChat as a double-edged sword, meaning that it has its benefits. It is a powerful tool. It's multifunctional."

But, he added, "WeChat is basically a state-sponsored monopoly. The Chinese government keeps tabs on all their citizens. Overseas or domestic or wherever you are, they know what you are doing."

Shen, who has circulated a petition on social media — including on WeChat — calling for a ban of the platform, has cited censorship by the Chinese government as a big reason in a previous interview.

He speculated that Trump ordered the ban with just five weeks left before the election, to look tough on China in the interests of national security and during the bruising trade war between the two countries.

Yuan, who connected the growing tensions between China and the U.S. to the timing of the ban, framed it as more of a nuisance than anything else.

"It's just that you're used to it, and then, all of a sudden, you have to change to something else," she said.

Shen said other options aren't blocked in China. Those include Letstalk, Zoom, Skype and Signal.

But for the older generation, who have grown accustomed to WeChat, switching to a new platform might not be so easy, Shen said.

Zhang said the ban has been a significant source of anxiety for the Chinese community, especially during tense times and a rise in anti-Asian sentiment.

She also pushed back against the notions that censorship by China's government leaves Chinese WeChat users with no digital alternatives and that the repercussions of the ban should be blamed on the Chinese state.

"Digital practices and communities cannot be explained by top-down, structural forces alone," she wrote. "They form out of real connections, needs, and preferences, in interaction with the affordances of the platform. When you already have meaningful and extensive communities on the platform, banning the platform is like digital exile."

But Shen, whose WeChat accounts have been suspended at times for sharing content that apparently ran afoul of the Chinese government, offered a different view.

"You cannot use anything in China — Facebook Messenger, Telegram, LINE," he said. "All these tools are banned in China. You don't have a choice other than WeChat."

The "dilemma that people are facing right now is created by the Chinese government," Shen said. "Remember that."