- Aug. 7, 2020Updated 3:19 p.m. ET
TAIPEI, Taiwan — In China, WeChat does more than any app rightfully should. People use it to talk, shop, share photos, pay bills, get their news and send money.
With much of the Chinese internet locked behind a wall of filters and censors, the country’s everything app is also one of the few digital bridges connecting China to the rest of the world. It is the way exchange students talk to their families, immigrants keep up with relatives and much of the Chinese diaspora swaps memes, gossip and videos.
Now, that bridge is threatening to crumble.
Taken together with Thursday’s twin order against the Chinese-owned video app TikTok, the move against WeChat marks a shift in the American approach to the Great Firewall, which for years has kept companies like Facebook and Google from operating in China. Restricting WeChat and TikTok could be the first steps in an eye-for-an-eye reprisal.
While TikTok may be the fad of the moment in the United States, WeChat is far more important in China. A digital bedrock of daily life, WeChat emerged as a tool for the Chinese authorities to impose social controls. Within China, the app is heavily censored and monitored by a newly empowered force of internet police.
Outside China’s borders, the app has become a key conduit for the spread of Beijing’s propaganda. Chinese security forces have also regularly used WeChat to intimidate and silence members of the Chinese diaspora, including minority Uighurs seeking to raise awareness of harsh crackdowns in their homeland in western China.
Outside China, it has mainly been a tether for the Chinese diaspora to their homeland.
The order could end up restricting a variety of dealings between Americans and Tencent.
American companies could, for instance, be barred from advertising on WeChat, cutting them off from a key channel for reaching China’s vast consumer market. Tencent could be prohibited from distributing WeChat through Apple’s and Google’s app stores, which could leave users unable to receive software updates, or unable to use the app entirely.
“For many overseas Chinese, the popularity and multifunctionality of WeChat has made apps popular outside of China unnecessary,” she said.
“That means the Chinese government is able to control a significant portion of the information overseas Chinese receive, even outside its borders,” she added. “This could have real domestic political implications, as many members of the Chinese diaspora are voters of the countries they reside in and are, or can be, politically mobilized.”
Lin Qiqing contributed research.
Targeting WeChat, Trump Takes Aim at China’s Bridge to the World https://nyti.ms/33xiOzb