- The US Commerce Department issued an order prohibiting downloads or updates to the Chinese messaging app WeChat starting on Sunday.
- WeChat will also be rendered unusable to US users, as internet hosting services are disallowed from “enabling the functioning or optimisation of the mobile application in the US.”
- For many Americans, particularly Chinese Americans, WeChat is their main way of keeping in touch with family and friends in China since apps like Facebook, Gmail, and WhatsApp are banned. The ban means they must scramble to find alternatives.
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For Robbie Li, who graduated from UC Berkeley a year ago and is now working at a tech startup, the Chinese messaging app WeChat is his only way of video chatting with his family in China, including his grandmother who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer about two months ago.
But on Friday, the US Commerce Department issued an order stipulating that beginning on Sunday, WeChat will not only become unavailable to download and unable to process payments, it will also be rendered unusable for US users. The order prohibits internet hosting services from “enabling the functioning or optimisation of the mobile application in the US.”
With this ban, Li says the thought of not being able to contact his grandmother is “painful and apprehensive to think about.” In addition, downloads and payments on WeChat will also come to a halt.
“When my grandma was visiting my parents and staying with my mum in Shanghai, about two months ago, she felt this pain and took her to this screening,” Li said. “Since then, I’ve been video chatting with her very frequently using WeChat.”
In China, WeChat is an all-in-one app that combines a mix of features including social networking, payments, ride-sharing and more.
For many people in the Chinese American community, WeChat is one of the few ways to keep in touch with loved ones in China, since apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Gmail are all banned in China. Friday’s order by the Commerce Department means these US-based users must now scramble to find alternatives like using a VPN, email, phone or FaceTime in order to stay in touch with people in China.
WeChat has 3.3 million monthly active users in the US as of August, according to App Annie. And in the past week, WeChat saw between 3,700-4,000 downloads per day on iOS and Google Play, according to App Annie.
According to the US government, WeChat. and TikTok could threaten national security because Chinese cloud providers can collect, store and process sensitive data from the US.
Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, has said it will keep working with American officials to achieve a “long-term solution,” and that the company “has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security.” Already, the White House has banned transactions with WeChat, and WeChat has also been banned in India.
“Given the WeChat app version outside of China was already limited in functionality compared to the version inside China, from a pure tech perspective, it won’t be an immense loss,” Forrester senior analyst Jessica Liu told Business Insider. “However, for people using it to connect with friends globally and, specifically, within China, they will need to find another messaging app that can traverse China’s firewall.”
WeChat allows Chinese Americans to keep in touch with family and friends
Sam Wang, research scientist at Bridgestone Americas, says he and his niece spent an entire year teaching his nearly 70-year-old parents how to use smart phones and WeChat so they can keep in touch. His parents work as farmers in remote areas. Besides them, Wang uses WeChat to communicate with his parents, relatives, and friends in China.
“WeChat is the only app in their smartphones,” Wang said. “They don’t know any other app. It’s going to affect us because we won’t be able to communicate with my parents. I guess I have to go back to calling them on the phone. I can’t use FaceTime because they’re in a remote area and don’t have good internet connection.”
Wang says when he heard about the news, he talked with his parents immediately, and they’re still not sure what they will use in the future to stay in touch. Even if he finds another app that he and his parents can use, he says he’ll likely lose touch with many of his friends.
“For sure I’m going to lose all my childhood friends, high school friends, and college friends because we almost only use WeChat in China,” Wang said. “I cannot force everyone to use different apps. I will find another app to communicate with my parents, but no way I will be able to communicate with other friends.”
For many Chinese immigrants in the US, WeChat is also a haven for them to socialise, especially if they are unfamiliar with American social media apps like Facebook.
For example, Lucy Wang, a high school senior in California and a Chinese immigrant, says she uses WeChat to keep in touch with her friends in extracurricular activities for Chinese students at her high school, which has a majority Asian American population.
She says for many Chinese immigrant students, they have trouble fitting in and speaking English, but also adapting to American apps like Facebook since they have never used it.
These clubs also rely on WeChat to do fundraisers, especially with people in the Chinese community. For now, she says that with her friends from high school, they will likely switch to apps like QQ and Instagram.
“Right now I’m using it to communicate with my club members who are usually having trouble with English,” Lucy Wang said. “We have to teach them how to use American social media because of this new executive order.”
WeChat has a popular translation feature
WeChat also has translation features that allow users to bridge the gap with Chinese speakers. For Sara Gaines, assistant director of student advancement at Case Western Reserve University, WeChat is the only way she can get updates on her father, who lives in China and has terminal cancer.
On WeChat, there’s a translation function that allows her to receive updates about her father and communicate with her stepmom, who speaks Chinese and doesn’t know English.
“I have gone from OK, I’ve accepted that my father is dying, I’ll be in touch with my family now that it’s happening, but then I got this news today,” Gaines said. “My first thought is my father is going to die and I’m not going to know when.”
Gaines has notified her family about the news of the ban, but she’s still waiting to hear back from them on other ways they can stay in contact. Since she heard about the news, she’s been scrambling to find another way to speak to her family, as many popular apps in the US are banned in China, or don’t have the same features.
“My biggest question right now is how am I supposed to talk to my family,” Gaines said. “I know there are other apps out there but this one has been the top app for a reason. It is the most functional, easiest for us to use. Again the translation feature has been key. While there are other apps, it’s not quite the same.”
Users are scrambling to find ways to stay in touch with contacts in China
Sam Wang acknowledges that WeChat sparks national security and data privacy problems, but at the same time, banning the app is especially hard on the Chinese American community.
“There are some problems with WeChat,” Wang said. “For sure like Facebook and Twitter, they also have their own problems, but banning this app is like Americans say, two wrongs don’t make a right. I don’t think this is the correct way to do it. This ban is especially hard on a lot of Chinese Americans. It cuts ties from a lot of friends and family. It’s just really hard for us.”
For Li, his grandma lives in a small village, and he says it’s not realistic to ask her to buy an iPhone so that they can FaceTime. Still, he’s heard of some people migrating to Telegraph while using a VPN or using email. Ultimately, he says that he and his family will probably “figure something out” to stay in touch, but he’s worried about losing touch with his friends.
“WeChat to this point has been a placeholder for all of my social connections to China, to a place where I lived for 16-17 years,” Li said. “Now all of a sudden, all of that is going to evaporate. I have so many questions about the intentions behind this. Of course I’ve read about security and privacy and all these concerns, but as of right now, it seems like there’s no way to communicate with people in China and from the United States.”
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