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Humans and technology

The human cost of a WeChat ban: severing a hundred million ties

While families, journalists, and scholars wait to understand the effect of Trump’s executive order, they worry about the relationships they’ll lose in the geopolitical struggle.
August 13, 2020
wechat ban for families
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In January, 1989, my 26-year-old father uprooted his life to move to the other side of the world. He had never been on a plane, let alone outside of China. But an American professor had offered him a postdoc, an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.

When he landed, he made only one call at an airport payphone to announce his arrival: not to home, but to his university. He had $100 to his name, and international calls were too expensive. His parents, still living in his rural hometown, didn’t have a phone anyway. For the next seven years, costly flights back home were out of the question. Instead, he stayed in touch by writing letters to his family: He wrote about the US, about his program, and eventually about his new wife, my mom.

It wasn’t until after I was born that phones became available in my grandparents’ village. My dad asked them to install one just so he could call home. As exorbitant as international calls still were, the promise of smoother communication made it worthwhile. Thus began a weekly ritual; he’d dial his parents, give them updates, cherish listening to theirs.

It’s no exaggeration to say that WeChat changed my father’s life. When the app became popular in the mid-2010s as a hub for messages, social media, payments, and other daily services, he asked his parents to install the internet for his sake so he could video call them on their cell phones without a need for data. He also finally had a way to keep in touch with his siblings and reconnect with old friends. WeChat became an essential digital link that could penetrate China’s Great Firewall.

But the continued existence of this connection is now an open question. On August 6, President Trump issued twin executive orders, banning people in the US from carrying out “transactions” with WeChat and TikTok within 45 days. No one really knows how broad the restrictions will be—whether they will be definitive or allow workarounds; whether they will apply just to the US or remove WeChat globally from the Apple and Google app stores.

While my dad is optimistic that they won’t be too bad, perhaps out of necessity, he fears waking up one day with his WeChat access gone. “If WeChat is banned, I will basically disappear from the WeChat family group,” he says. “Everything will be changed. It would be a huge impact to my life.”

A loss of understanding

An estimated 19 million people in the US use WeChat daily, according to the analytics firm Apptopia. These 19 million users represent at least an order of magnitude more relationships: relationships with family and friends, with coworkers and sources. At a geopolitical level, a ban on WeChat would be just the latest move in the Trump administration’s continued escalation of its feud with China. But at a human level, it would be the weakening or severing of hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of connections—a loss undeniable albeit difficult to quantify.

It wouldn’t just impact people like my father who’d lose their primary channel for staying close to family. It would also impact businesses, journalists, and researchers who equally rely on the platform to do their work with people and entities in China. These now-tenuous connections are ultimately the foundation of the US-China relationship: they are what allow both countries to keep an open dialogue and grow commerce and collaborations.

Graham Webster, a researcher at Stanford University who has been studying China for over a decade, uses WeChat heavily to understand what’s happening within the country. He uses it to call up Chinese experts who work on issues he wants to understand and to keep in touch with colleagues. Since the pandemic, these channels have only grown more important in replacing in-person interactions. He’s already noticed how much the loss of face-to-face conversations have reduced his ability to probe people on sensitive issues, such as political ones.

Losing access to that as a research community would be tragic.

Graham Webster

If he lost WeChat as well, recovering those lines of direct communication would be that much harder: email is unreliable, both because people in China rarely check their inboxes and because emails often mysteriously disappear while transmitting across borders. Zoom, one of the few platforms still standing, is also on shaky territory with Chinese users cut off from direct sales of the service.

But even if there were another way to keep the conversations going, it would do nothing to save his access to WeChat’s public accounts, blogs that exist often exclusively in the WeChat ecosystem and serve as a crucial source of primary information. “If I lose access to the WeChat public accounts, I’m going to lose a lot of visibility into what Chinese policy makers are thinking and what policies they're introducing, and how they're explaining them and discussing them with one another in Chinese for a Chinese audience,” he says. “Losing access to that as a research community would be tragic. It would definitely harm the US ability to make smart decisions about how to deal with China in the future.”

Jeffrey Ding, an American researcher at Oxford University who studies China’s AI strategy, also uses WeChat to keep in touch with family and friends as well as scholars. Over 80% of the blogs and documents he translates as part of his work are sourced from WeChat public accounts and the WeChat messaging groups that include Chinese researchers.

“Alternatives do exist, and if I have to adjust I will,” he says. For example, he’ll switch back to phone calls to replace his weekly video chats with his grandma. But while he’s more confident he can find substitutions for his closest relationships, he worries about the weaker connections he’ll lose in his network. “We shouldn't discount the significance of these ‘thinner’ ties,” he says. “Sometimes the thinnest of ties can lead to much deeper understanding and open up doors when the opportunity arises.”

The US hurting itself

There’s a reason why WeChat is the only platform still available for communicating with people in China. It’s because the Chinese government banned everything else. First it was Facebook and Google, then Telegram and WhatsApp. “It's not as if there's no fault on the Chinese side for this,” Webster says.

But retaliating in turn is also not the solution. “If you think about what the US is doing, it’s basically learning from China,” says Youyou Zhou, a Chinese national who works as a journalist in the US and relies on WeChat to talk to sources and loved ones. “It’s establishing cyber sovereignty and claiming to protect user data in the US by using political action and legal means to fend off competition. It’s just not what you would expect a liberal and free country would do.”

If you think about what the US is doing, it’s basically learning from China.

Youyou Zhou

Over time, both Webster and Zhou worry that this cleaving will hurt the US. What’s happening in China right now, Webster says, is “legitimately very dark,” including the escalating oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the passage of the National Security Law in Hong Kong. But the Trump administration’s actions are against the US’s self-interests, he says. “If we set ourselves up for a new cold war and there’s no ability to monitor actual events in China, I think we could very well miss opportunities to have better outcomes in the long term. Essentially tearing down any connection between the two places is a recipe for enduring conflict.”

Zhou recently downloaded all of her data from WeChat in anticipation of the worst-case scenario. Webster is taking things a day at a time. Both are still waiting for more clarity as to whether Trump’s executive orders are even legal.

As for my dad, he has continued to video call his parents on WeChat while he can, and message the family group with updates about his life. “Hurricane Isaias swept across the east coast of the US, and uprooted a small tree in front of my house,” he recently wrote to go along with a photo. “This year has truly been a never-ending disaster,” wrote back his sister in China. “I hope everything will pass soon.”

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