WeChat and the impact on Asian Americans and communities of color
The potential ban of WeChat, the 5th most-used social app in the world, would have serious impacts on Asian Americans and communities of color
By Vivin Qiang
Prior to the Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat and other Administration actions in the last month, there may have been limited attention devoted to the mobile app developed by the Chinese tech giant Tencent. Despite its seemingly low-profile existence in the United States, WeChat actually has over one billion users worldwide. While most of its users are in China, millions of people in the U.S. also rely on the app to stay in touch with friends, family, customers, and business contacts in China. However, President Trump’s recent actions against WeChat could mean that these connections may be lost forever in the near future, as the Department of Commerce has ordered a ban on prohibiting U.S. transactions with WeChat starting on September 20.
As a Chinese American, I know this decision has sent shockwaves through my community. Like many others, WeChat has been the primary way for me to communicate with loved ones in China, including my elderly grandmother, who sends me messages via the app on a daily basis. In the U.S., many Asian American social service agencies also rely on WeChat to disseminate information with community members. It is a platform that is used constantly for everything from sharing news, shopping, to arranging playdates for kids. If the ban takes effect, Chinese American and immigrant communities fear their entire social network in China — as well as their U.S. community connections — will vanish overnight.
For social service agencies that serve communities with significant Chinese American populations, some are struggling to find alternative ways to reach these communities and communicate important information. Non-profit organizations, such as the United Chinese Americans, also utilize WeChat’s social media platform to advocate for the advancement of civil rights and provide educational resources on voting rights, the 2020 Census, and racial justice. A ban will considerably limit Chinese American communities’ access to the services, information and resources available.
In the executive order against WeChat, the White House cited concerns over WeChat’s user data collection, which may allow the Chinese government to access personal and proprietary information. WeChat also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party finds politically sensitive. While Tencent has publicly stated that all content shared among users outside of China is private, a recent report by Citizen Lab, the University of Toronto Online Watchdog, claims that WeChat engages in content surveillance with its international accounts. There is cause for concern that the accumulation and collection of content and social media surveillance — pulled from platforms like WeChat — may very well negatively impact Asian Americans and communities of color with additional surveillance. Thus, there are real issues that should be studied and addressed. Such issues, however, do not seem to warrant an outright ban of WeChat in the U.S.
Other popular messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are blocked in China by the government (which is problematic), and that is one reason why WeChat is widely used by Chinese immigrants and Americans to communicate with loved ones back home in China and makes moving to alternative messaging services more difficult. To persons living in China, WeChat is seen as a necessary communication tool. In addition, the app’s ability to integrate social media, instant messaging, online shopping, and mobile payments has made it incredibly user friendly, especially for older generations who prefer an “all-in-one” app approach.
The announcement of the Executive Order was met with inquietude and resistance in the Chinese American community, and the recent release of the Department of Commerce’s ban is going to heighten those fears and anger. Many Chinese Americans and immigrants feel they have become unintended casualties at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. Some believe the proposed ban infringes on their constitutional rights.
A ban on WeChat does not only impact Asian Americans, Chinese Americans and immigrant communities, but also American companies that rely on the app to reach consumers in China. While WeChat is mainly known as a messaging app, the app’s functions go far beyond that, including social media, mobile payments, and other third party Mini Programs. American corporations, including Walmart, McDonald’s and Starbucks, have developed Mini Programs on the WeChat platform to reach Chinese consumers and process transactions.
The details of any further actions remains to be seen. However, if the current order results in American companies ceasing to do business with WeChat, U.S. firms’ business operations in China may also be impacted. For example, Walmart’s “Scan-and-Go” has incorporated WeChat Pay as its mobile payment tool. Since the launch of the service, more than 30% of its total transactions were made in China. Given the large consumer reach of WeChat, executives from a dozen U.S. multinational companies have raised concerns regarding the Executive order on WeChat in a conference call. They claim that such actions could undermine their competitiveness in the Chinese market, the second largest economy in the world.
The Trump Administration’s Executive Order on WeChat has left many wondering what the future of U.S.- China relations will look like. While the precise effect of the Executive Order is currently unclear, it is clear that shutting down WeChat would negatively impact Chinese American communities and American businesses. Under the current political climate and rising anti-Asian sentiments amid COVID-19, it is hard for Chinese Americans to not feel targeted. Some worry that the administration’s rhetoric against China could influence the American public to perceive Chinese Americans and immigrants as a threat. Asian Americans have endured a long history of being scapegoated and stereotyped as the “perpetual foreigner” due to their ethnicity. COVID-19 and recent tensions between the U.S. and China should not influence a new wave of xenophobia against Asian and Chinese Americans, who have been part of the fabric of American society for centuries.
Vivin Qiang is the Program Coordinator of the Anti-Racial Profiling Project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.
Henri’ Thompson is the Assistant Director, Telecommunications, Technology and Media Diversity at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. Learn more about our telecommunications, technology and media diversity program.