Following days of speculation, the Trump White House dropped two new executive orders on Thursday night, effectively barring any U.S. transactions with the Chinese social media apps TikTok and WeChat. The decision was made under the authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that underlies U.S. sanctions programs. Amid a flurry of actions directed against China by the administration in recent weeks, including the rollout of a wide-ranging but unclear Clean Network program, this is perhaps the most significant.
Is this a big deal? What is WeChat anyway?
The new restrictions on the popular video-sharing app TikTok increase the likelihood of a quick sale to Microsoft, the U.S. software giant that has expressed interest in a purchase. It would likely be easy to slice off TikTok from its original Chinese ownership since it was set up as a separate system in the first place. WeChat, by contrast, is the same app in the United States as it is in China.
And in China, WeChat is everything. It started as a mere chat program but expanded into its own ecosystem: Imagine Instagram, Facebook, Venmo, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Uber Eats all rolled into a single megaplatform. The app is extremely convenient, well designed, and easy to use. It’s far more common to pay with WeChat Pay than with cash in Chinese cities, where even the destitute display QR codes. Some 83 percent of recorded Chinese transactions go through mobile payment systems, either WeChat Pay or its competitor Alipay. (That probably understates the continued usage of cash—more than 400 million Chinese are still offline, but cash transactions are much more difficult to track.) Even ID systems, a critical part of life in China, especially since the coronavirus pandemic, are being incorporated into WeChat.
WeChat hasn’t had anywhere near as much success outside China as TikTok. It’s difficult to access most of its features without reading Chinese or, in many cases, having a recognized Chinese ID. The vast bulk of its 1.2 billion users is in China—basically, every single person online in China is likely on WeChat—and the Chinese diaspora makes up a lot of the remainder. It made a serious effort in India but lost out to WhatsApp.
It’s important to remember that WeChat’s dominance lies in part because China already shut out competition. Virtually all foreign social media is banned in China and has been for a decade or so in most cases. WeChat is an excellent platform, but it has also thrived in a protected environment—and largely failed outside it.
What do the new restrictions actually accomplish?
As with many decisions coming from the Trump White House, the real impact is not entirely clear. The wording of the executive orders leaves much scope to interpret exactly what “transactions” are covered. The order covering WeChat was drafted so badly that it appeared to cover all transactions with Tencent, WeChat’s owner. That would have disrupted huge sections of the tech economy. Tencent has a large presence in online gaming, where, for instance, it owns 40 percent of Epic Games, which makes the popular game Fortnite, and has stakes in Reddit, Tesla, and Spotify, among other companies. But White House officials clarified—for now—that the order is only supposed to cover transactions regarding WeChat itself.
The most likely enforcement route is to force Apple and Google to remove the apps from their stores. That will effectively kill them for many users: While it’s possible to keep running an unsupported app, or to use a virtual private network (VPN) to get access to another country’s stores, the process can be complicated and annoying. Given that both companies are U.S.-based, it’s likely that the ban will effectively apply internationally as well. Apple also removes unsupported apps during regularly scheduled iOS upgrades. Penalties on U.S. firms advertising with either service are also highly probable. That’s going to make life hard for U.S. firms trying to reach the Chinese market, where WeChat is a huge advertising platform.
But isn’t Apple huge in China as well?
Apple sells over 3 million iPhones in China every month, making it the company’s second-largest market after the United States. If Apple is forced to remove WeChat from the Chinese version of the App Store, it could represent a potential deathblow for the California-based tech giant; the Chinese public likes iPhones, but they need WeChat. Apple is also highly compliant with the Chinese authorities, even going out of its way to remove protest apps in Hong Kong. Apple will likely to do everything in its power to avoid a scenario where consumers have to choose between iPhones and WeChat.
Are these apps really a threat to U.S. national security, as claimed?
Both WeChat and TikTok effectively function as spyware, collecting huge amounts of data on users. But so do U.S. apps like Facebook. On a purely personal level, China may technically have stronger data protection laws than the United States. The problem is that none of that applies once the government comes into play; China’s national security law—and the overwhelming reality of life in a dictatorial party-state—means that companies have no choice but to turn that data over to the state. (Contrast that with Apple’s ability to refuse to, for instance, unlock an iPhone for the FBI.)
WeChat, like all Chinese social media, is subject to massive surveillance and censorship, especially for foreign accounts. Because it’s so common in the diaspora, it’s a major part of the Chinese Communist Party’s concerted efforts to control, threaten, and manipulate people of Chinese descent worldwide. Uighurs, Tibetans, and dissidents abroad avoid using WeChat entirely or use it only in the knowledge that everything they write is being read by the Chinese police.
Then there’s the question of influence operations. Chinese American communities are heavily dependent on WeChat’s internal news network, which is controlled by censors in Beijing. TikTok has faced credible allegations, which it denies, of tweaking its algorithms in the United States at China’s direction. Of course, any ban on those grounds would face First Amendment challenges: Americans are free to immerse themselves in foreign propaganda networks just as they are domestic ones.
Whom does this hurt most?
Millions of people overseas use WeChat as their primary way to talk to friends and family in China who are shut off by Chinese policies from any other social media tools. Sure, email exists—but the convenience and ease of being tucked into the vast WeChat ecosystem is real. From texting grandparents to keeping in touch with college buddies, WeChat plays an important emotional and practical role in the life of the diaspora. It may be possible to maintain access to WeChat—either through its somewhat halfhearted web app or through fiddling with VPNs—but a lot of users in the United States are older people unfamiliar with such technology.
How is China reacting?
With predictable fury and brazen hypocrisy. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson condemned the United States for “using national security as an excuse and using state power to oppress non-American businesses.” That’s a bit rich coming from a country that effectively splintered itself off from the global internet in the early 2010s under the excuse of national security. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all been banned in China for a long time. The non-Chinese internet is effectively unreachable without a VPN in China. Fears of a “splinternet” are a decade too late; the walls already went up on the Chinese side.
Because China already banned such a wide sweep of foreign products, it doesn’t have a lot of options to retaliate directly, as Nina Palmer wrote in Foreign Policy this week. One possibility, though, is going after foreign operating systems. The dominance of Windows in official systems has long been a source of worry for Beijing, and there have been repeated, failed attempts to develop a strong domestic alternative. This could be the push that actually gets those efforts moving. But it’s also possible that the retaliation will come in some other form entirely, such as the detention of U.S. tech executives in China or further harassment of U.S. consulates.
As I’ve argued before, Thursday’s orders may actually be a key part of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s broader China strategy. Provoking a Chinese reaction forces U.S. companies to start considering the risk of their positions in China. This isn’t just about walling off Chinese tech from global markets—it’s an attempt to force a much wider economic decoupling. The moves by China hawks inside the administration definitely won’t end here; many more forms of Chinese power and economic reach are likely to be targeted in the next few months. In particular, given the contentions over vaccines, action against Chinese biotech firms and their ties to the United States—already sharply reduced since 2018—is very likely.
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