Why Trump’s push to ban WeChat would be hard on the Chinese diaspora

Chinese Americans are waiting nervously to hear whether the Trump administration’s efforts to ban the app WeChat in the US will be successful.

Donald Trump issued an executive order on August 6 placing the Chinese-owned app in the firing line, claiming it was a “threat” to US national security. The order propelled the US Department of Commerce into action to propose banning WeChat from US app stores and prohibit money transfers using the app. This move was met with dismay by many Chinese Americans, who rely on the app as a source of both news and connection with family and friends in China.

On September 20, a few days before the executive order was due to take effect, a federal judge put a preliminary injunction on the ban, bringing temporary relief to the Chinese diaspora. But the Trump administration has since lodged an appeal, indicating a determination to pursue the ban and leaving WeChat users in America uncertain of the app’s future.

Multiple apps in one

WeChat, like the video-sharing app TikTok, has been caught up in mounting trade tensions and a growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. The ownership of data and the digital technology companies behind popular apps has taken center stage.

While Tiktok has a strong presence in the US, with an estimated user base of 100 million, WeChat use is more highly concentrated in the Chinese American community, with an average US monthly user-base of 19 million active daily users. However, WeChat is a behemoth in the global app market, with more than 1.2 billion monthly active users in the second quarter of 2020.

[Read: The US is banning TikTok and WeChat — but the benefits won’t outweigh the costs]

WeChat’s multifunctionality makes it difficult to characterize in terms of platforms familiar to a western audience. This single app offers text, voice, and video communication among different types of social networks, games, QR code scanning, taxi-hailing, mobile commerce , and phone payment functionality.

Its core function, qun, is similar to WhatsApp – allowing users to create a group of up to 500 members, send text, voice, photo, and video messages to the group and organize group calls. Pengyouquan (similar to Facebook posts) enables users to share updates, while Gongzhonghao (official accounts) is similar to Twitter, allowing individuals, government, media, and enterprises to set up official accounts and feeds. The app’s commercial functionality also makes it similar to apps such as Apple Pay and Paypal.

With this combined massive user-base and range of functionality, WeChat is a central feature of daily life in China. It’s one of the relatively few apps that is available both within and outside of China – representing a vital link for the Chinese diaspora to friends, family, and news from home.

WeChat and guanxi

In our research on WeChat use by Chinese citizens living in the UK, it was clear how central the app was to their daily lives. Our participants discussed using WeChat “every minute” and told us that: “Checking updates on WeChat is the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do before going to bed in the evening.” Research from Australia shows the app is being used in similar ways there too.

Woman holding phone and coffe cup sitting in a cafe.