“Ding Ding (DingTalk)? Skype? Worst case scenario—we can use zoom and email.”
When my stepmom texted me those words in early September, our hearts were both heavy. We have long heard rumors about the potential ban on WeChat since mid-July. Yet, on August 6, 2020, when the news of President Donald Trump signing an executive order to ban downloads and use of WeChat in the United States in just 45 days started to spread, we were not ready to confront our imminent dilemma.
Citing mainly national security concerns, the Trump administration claimed that WeChat’s vast pool of data collected from its users “threatens to allow the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information” and also lets the party “keep tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.” The administration’s vague order also included the ban of “any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property.” Unsure of what “transaction” entails, I transferred all the money in my virtual WeChat wallet to my family in China. They immediately joked about it, saying that it was perhaps my first time handing in my pocket money so willingly.
Yet, beneath our cheerful conversation lied three anxious minds. WeChat is, not to exaggerate, the umbilical cord between me and my oversea family, and is more so for tens of thousands of other Chinese international students in the U.S. As the pandemic restricted our physical means of returning home, our connection with those on the other side of the Pacific ocean was practically reduced to one single app: WeChat. You might think that this is an exaggerated generalization, but it is a fact that almost every Chinese person who has a smartphone and regularly socializes uses WeChat as their main social media app. From messaging, calling, posting, watching videos, and reading the news to paying bills, checking out local hangouts, and booking doctor appointments, WeChat comprises an incredibly wide variety of functions. As we scrambled to resort to other platforms, we only realized the irreplaceable role WeChat plays in our lives.
On the night of September 20, the ban on WeChat, according to the executive order, was supposed to be implemented. Fortunately, that did not happen. As a result of Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler’s ruling, who determined that the restrictions on the app could violate the First Amendment rights of its users in the United States, the WeChat ban was temporarily halted. My family and I, along with other Chinese international students and their home connections, were beyond relieved to hear the news, though the provisional nature of the current circumstance still leaves us with mixed emotions.
Ironically, the administration itself supported its argument with evidence from over a year ago. It is no secret that WeChat has had privacy issues, with the platform’s consistent censorships of politically sensitive messages, articles, and other forms of media, yet the sweeping statement that it directly threatens the national security of the U.S. seems absurd and unfounded. Many find the timing of the ban to be particularly suspicious in the context of the upcoming presidential election. As Gary Sun ’22 points out, “Trump is trying to gather support by presenting a hard image towards China and appeal to the southern and Midwest voters.”
The administration’s political concerns are fragmenting our already vulnerable connection with our families, and the future of this vital cord, WeChat, remains uncertain.