Future Tense

The WeChat Ban Is Particularly Cruel to This Group of American Users

An iPhone showing WeChat in the App Store.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Friday, the Commerce Department announced that the China-based social media apps TikTok and WeChat will be banned from U.S. app stores beginning Sunday. In the U.S., TikTok is far more popular—with 100 million monthly active users—than WeChat, which averages 19 million daily U.S. users, according to analytics firm Apptopia. But in China, WeChat operates as the country’s primary messaging, payment, and social media platform, and it is used by more than 1 billion people worldwide. The ban could have an outsized impact on Chinese Americans who use WeChat to communicate with friends and family living in China.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross instituted the ban after Trump had ordered the department to review the apps last month. In a statement, the department cited national security and data privacy concerns, noting that the Chinese Communist Party has “the means and motives” to use the apps to harm U.S. interests. The Commerce Department also announced it was banning all U.S. financial transactions through WeChat. Along with other social media sites in China, WeChat actively censors its platform, primarily political topics. Although accounts with phone numbers outside of mainland China are not subject to censorship, research by Citizen Lab revealed that communications between WeChat users registered outside of China are under political surveillance.

The ban has U.S.-based users worried and outraged, as many have few alternatives to connect with family and friends in China. Other major social media platforms, including WhatsApp and Facebook, are banned in China. WeChat also serves as a news source for the Chinese diaspora, allowing users to coordinate and share information. A notable example: In 2016, major nationwide protests in support of Peter Liang—a Chinese American NYPD officer who fatally shot Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man, in 2014—were primarily organized through the service. In addition to messaging, many U.S. users also use the app for monetary transactions, such as sending gifts for Lunar New Year or paying business associates in China. Some expressed their dismay on Twitter:

Although the Trump administration won’t pursue a full ban of TikTok until November, in anticipation of a deal that could transfer U.S. operations to Oracle and Walmart, WeChat users will start experiencing slower app service and outages later this month. Tencent, WeChat’s owner, says it is working to rebrand its app. But in the meantime, many Chinese Americans will be left to figure out how to stay in touch with loved ones in the middle of a pandemic.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.