WASHINGTON – Ethnic Chinese in America and business owners reacted with dismay and outrage to the Trump administration’s ban on Chinese-owned apps WeChat and TikTok, fearing it could leave them completely cut off from family, friends, and customers in China.
They scrambled to back up messages and contacts and find other messaging apps to use, as news broke on Friday morning of the ban on future downloads of WeChat that takes effect on Sunday (Sept 20).
Video-sharing app TikTok will also be banned starting Nov 12. But the WeChat ban hit harder for many people of Chinese descent in America, particularly fresh immigrants, who depend on the social media app to communicate with loved ones in mainland China, where other apps like WhatsApp and Telegram are banned.
“This isn’t just maybe one or two family members that we won’t be able to talk to regularly anymore, this is our entire extended family that we’re losing contact with,” said University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate Michelle Lin in a Twitter thread that went viral on Friday.
Ms Lin, whose parents immigrated to the US from China over 20 years ago, said WeChat’s arrival in 2011 was the first time she was able to speak to and get to know her cousins and grandparents.
“I’d never even known what it was like to have relatives, I didn’t realise how much strength being connected to family out there can give,” she wrote, adding that she treasured her WeChat interactions.
“My 90-plus-year-old grandfather learned to use the app to better communicate with us overseas,” she said. “He sends me little messages sometimes, it literally keeps me going.”
American businesses with suppliers and customers in China reeled from the news that WeChat transactions would be banned.
The twin bans are part of a larger backlash against Chinese technology, including Chinese tech giant Huawei’s phones and involvement in 5G telecommunications networks, which the White House and lawmakers say pose threats to America’s national security.
In response to the backlash in America, WeChat’s owner Tencent Holdings has chosen Singapore as its regional hub in Asia, Bloomberg reported last week.
Current WeChat users, of which there are more than 50 million active in the US, will not be immediately affected if they already have the app downloaded onto their phones.
But WeChat appears headed for a slow death in the US, cut off from updates and security patches via the official app store, as well as from hosting and network services that support the app.
“Since the WeChat ban targets all the network support services that speed communications, network lag could well make it impossible to make voice or video calls between US and China on WeChat,” wrote Mr Graham Webster, editor in chief of the DigiChina project between Stanford University and the New America think tank, on Twitter.
“Many families-who can’t travel during a pandemic-could have their channels cut,” he added.
Some suggested switching to Tencent-owned instant messaging app QQ, which has not been affected by the Trump administration’s restrictions so far. But Republican lawmaker Marco Rubio has already taken aim at the app, urging President Donald Trump in a letter last Friday (Sept 11) to ban QQ as well.
The US WeChat Users Alliance, a group of Chinese American lawyers unaffiliated with WeChat, has called the move an unconstitutional one that racially targets Chinese in America, pointing out that many also use WeChat to communicate with fellow Chinese in America. It is seeking a preliminary injunction in court to stop the ban.
Technology experts also pointed out that new security risks could be introduced by users attempting to bypass the restrictions by installing unverified apps, called sideloading, or by removing restrictions from a phone to allow such apps to be installed, or jailbreaking.
Mr Webster wrote that banning TikTok and WeChat from US app stores without banning the use of the apps “directly encourages people to circumvent the hugely important security efforts of those app stores and sideload apps and/or jailbreak devices, making users’ data less safe.”
Said Stanford University cybersecurity adjunct professor Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook: “One of the immediate impacts will be Chinese Americans trading their iPhones for Androids and side-loading a WeChat client that calls into non-US infrastructure. Losing contact with family during a global crisis is a big motivator. This isn’t a security upgrade.”
While the ban has its supporters among people concerned with security threats from China and Chinese technology, critics argue that the move is akin to censorship and runs counter to American values of freedom of speech.
Said Mr Stamos: “We are in a long-term economic and ideological struggle with the People’s Republic of China, but we will not win that struggle by building the Great Firewall of the United States. The administration’s actions are tacitly supporting the Chinese approach to internet governance.”