For many Chinese people in the U.S., WeChat is not just a messaging app. It’s also one of the main ways of doing business. Trump’s order could change all that.
When Kate Wang, an education consultant in Seattle, gave birth to her daughter six months ago, she video-called her father, who was thousands of miles away in China, on the app WeChat.
So far, it’s the only way he’s met his granddaughter.
With a firewall separating much of China’s internet from the rest of the world, few apps have traversed both sides like WeChat.
A combination of Facebook, Venmo, and YouTube all rolled into one, WeChat has been called an “everything app” for its wide-ranging versatility. Users can send messages, share files, order delivery, and pay for services without ever leaving the platform.
Over one billion people—15% of the world’s population—use the app, and it’s not limited to people in China. Immigrants, children of immigrants, and people who do business with China use WeChat to stay in touch.
So when the Trump administration issued an executive order that could pull the app from the U.S. market and ban transactions with its owner company Tencent, the news sent shock waves through the Chinese-American community.
(Read more: How everyone in China came to rely on one app)
For many people in the U.S., the first thought was whether a WeChat ban would mean separation from their families in China.
Alex Xiao, a recent Duke Law graduate from Beijing, posted alternative social media handles on his WeChat feed shortly after Trump issued the executive order on Aug. 7. He says many of his Chinese friends in the U.S. did the same.
Xiao estimates only 5% of his 1,000 connections on WeChat have an alternative social media app.
The 26-year-old is not as concerned about losing touch with his parents as he is with other contacts. He says his parents are tech-savvy enough to circumvent China’s firewall and download restricted apps like Line, WhatsApp, and Telegram.
He is more worried about older relatives and acquaintances in both China and the U.S. who have become accustomed with WeChat and don’t use any other app. Xiao estimates only 5% of his 1,000 connections on WeChat have an alternative social media app.
More than just a chat app
As a so-called super app, WeChat has monopolized many spaces in China's internet ecosystem. Its simple name belies the many functions that the app actually serves, and often, it’s the only name in the game.
For many users, WeChat is their primary way to receive news and keep up with what’s happening in China and the world. Articles are disseminated through social media feeds and chat groups.
But these channels have also been criticized for spreading misinformation and sensational links thanks to pervasive censorship and the spread of propaganda.
Many in the diaspora community like Xiao have been trying to feed reliable news sources to relatives and friends on chat groups who otherwise can’t access such information.
“If they can’t access reliable information through us who are abroad, they won’t be able to hear anything outside their echo chamber.”
“It’s a way to communicate with people in my parents’ generation if I rebut the misinformation they share in a chat group,” Xiao says.
Banning WeChat in the U.S. means cutting off that channel. “If they can’t access reliable information through us who are abroad, they won’t be able to hear anything outside their echo chamber,” Xiao says. “It’s terrible.”
‘If WeChat gets banned, it’s the end of my business’
For people who do business with China, it’s no secret that WeChat is necessary for cross-border communication. Email is not as widely used, since much of China’s internet development coincided with the rise of mobile.
Today, WeChat is the de facto way to do business, even in large companies. But small businesses in the U.S. whose main clients are Chinese would also be affected by a ban.
Liu Mohan, 30, runs a private food delivery and catering service in Iowa City. Her main customers are Chinese students attending the University of Iowa.
Most of her business is conducted on WeChat, where she shares the latest menus, takes orders, and arranges pickup schedules with clients. She even takes payments through the app.
“Yes, people will find an alternative social media channel, but there’s no other platform as integrated as WeChat.”
“I have 4,000 friends on WeChat, at least 3,000 of whom are my clients, and the rest are potential clients,” Liu says. “If WeChat gets banned, it’s the end of my business. Yes, people will find an alternative social media channel, but there’s no other platform as integrated as WeChat.”
It remains unclear whether Trump’s executive order will require the app to pull out of the U.S. market, but the idea of it has sent a chilling effect.
For many Chinese nationals in the States—who already face an anti-Asian backlash amid the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty from the U.S.-China trade war—the latest development feels like salt on the wound.
Liu, who’s from the northern Chinese city of Shenyang, says if WeChat is blocked in the U.S., she might just close her service and return to China.
“The U.S.-China relationship has sunk to this low level,” she says. “What’s the point of continuing to stay here?”