President Trump's executive orders seeking to ban China-owned WeChat and TikTok in the US had been signaled for months. When secretary of state Mike Pompeo told Fox News in early July that the US was “looking at” clamping down on the social media apps, the writing was on the wall. But when Trump followed through with the announcement on Thursday it was still a shock to Chinese people living in the United States, including many who are US citizens. The assault on WeChat was particularly stunning and perplexing.
TikTok is mainly used by millennials and Gen Zers of all kinds to show off their dance moves, cakes, pranks, or makeup techniques, and it also may have gotten under Trump's skin when some of his young opponents used it to try to sabotage his last (less-than) big rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June.
WeChat, on the other hand, is mainly favored in the US by most of the country’s more than 3 million Chinese immigrants of all ages, both to communicate with other Chinese in the country and with people back home in China, where it is ubiquitous and has most of its billion-strong user base. In China, WeChat is about as powerful as Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook are combined in the US.
In recent years, WeChat has been partially hijacked by conservative thinkers in the Chinese community. Indeed, it was the birthplace of Chinese Trumpism in 2016, and it’s where many of the president’s Chinese supporters are mobilizing for his reelection. With the election less than 90 days away, and (if the executive order is actually executed) as WeChat might be paralyzed by late September, some Chinese Trump supporters are wondering if the president realizes the implications of what he's doing.
To be sure, the real impact of the executive orders is still subject to the government's interpretation. The orders declare that “any transaction” related to WeChat, TikTok, or their parent companies—Tencent and ByteDance, respectively—be prohibited 45 days after August 6. What “transaction” means won't be spelled out until around the time the orders come into effect.
While TikTok's US operations may be sold to Microsoft or another American company before the deadline, WeChat is unlikely to be saved. To many Chinese living in the US, the app may have been sentenced to death.
To them, a ban on WeChat means they won’t be able to talk to their families in China anytime they like, nor exchange information with one another about everything from the latest movies to breastfeeding, often in specialist chatting groups.
It means American businesses will find it hard to communicate with their Chinese suppliers, customers, or partners, and Chinese students—who’ve already faced a battering over allegations of espionage and various immigration controls—will be less likely to come here to study.
It also means the last effective two-way channel between China and the US will be closed, as all other non-China-owned communication apps are banned in China. To be sure, WeChat has been used by trolls in China to spread disinformation about events in the US, China, and the world, but it also gave people living here the chance to counter them with the truth.
If the WeChat clampdown had occurred six months ago, it would have made it much more difficult for Chinese in the US to locate and import millions of pieces of invaluable personal protective equipment that were donated to hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and police precincts here.
It’s the restraints on his own supporters that could backfire most for Trump with an election looming.
The Democrats used to be able to assume they had overwhelming support from the Chinese community in the US. But in recent years, some new immigrants have put their feet firmly in the Trump camp. This is partly because of his pro-business policies, but also because they feel Democrat leaders in cities like New York have ignored concerns about education and law and order policies in particular.
“We Chinese supporters found one another in 2016 mainly on WeChat,” said Jack Jia, a jewelry designer in New York and the founder and president of Chinese Americans Alliance for Trump, an organization that exists mainly on WeChat.
Started in the summer of 2016 with a couple of dozen members, the Alliance had attracted hundreds of supporters by the election. Rallies and marches for Trump were organized on the platform. And there were at least a few dozen similar WeChat groups set up around the country.
The momentum has continued through Trump’s presidency. On July 19, Jia held a small rally in Times Square to support the police who, in his view, were unfairly treated in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Participants, who learned about the event via the notice Jia posted on WeChat, held banners reading “Firmly support NYPD!” and “2020 Trump. Keep American Great."
When I asked Jia about the likelihood of a WeChat ban, he seemed to be debating himself. Despite using it a lot, he doesn’t love the service. His several chat groups have sometimes been blocked by China's censors when the US members posted “sensitive content” that Beijing doesn’t like. But a ban “would make campaigning for Trump a little inconvenient,” said Jia, who plans to organize a few more rallies for the president before November.
Andy Zhang, an IT professional in Phoenix and president of the Trump-supporting Chinese American Alliance Action, which has tens of thousands followers on WeChat, agreed that WeChat has played a major role in mobilizing Chinese Trump supporters. In October 2016, Zhang and his WeChat friends in Arizona booked planes to pull banners carrying the message “Chinese Americans for Trump” that hovered above Phoenix for hours. Chinese Trump supporters then launched similar stunts in at least 16 other cities, organizing and paying for them through fundraising on WeChat.
Zhang has recently started testing other social media platforms, including Line and Telegraph. He hates both. Zhang isn't yet convinced the app will be banned but says that, even if it is, “Trump supporters won’t change their political stance only because he bans WeChat.”
Others will be far less forgiving. “I won’t vote for him again if he bans WeChat,” said Cheng Zeng, who runs an agency serving international students. In 2016, the newly naturalized Zeng cast the first ballot in her life, for Trump, thanks to the influence of the discussions on WeChat. “If he bans WeChat, it’d be like he makes us Chinese Americans blind and dumb," she said.
In some swing states, Chinese American voters could make consequential differences. For example, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 46,435 votes in Pennsylvania, where there are more than 238,000 Asian voters, many of them Chinese and Indian.
On Friday, the atmosphere on WeChat in the US was almost apocalyptic as people scrambled to leave one another their phone numbers and email address and to find alternative platforms. A popular article on WeChat posted a few days ago compared the pro and cons of different apps that WeChat users can move to and concluded that Telegram is the best among them all. Many WeChat users are taking the advice.
But it left many also scratching their heads. How would Telegram, an app developed by two Russian brothers and which doesn't disclose the location of its servers, better serve Washington's interests? We shouldn't expect a coherent response to that question from a president who probably didn't consider his Chinese supporters before signing the executive orders.
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