China’s WeChat in the docket: Guilty as charged?

By Andrew Wan
Student Research Assistant, China Studies Program

After the Trump administration issued executive orders on August 6 banning WeChat and TikTok over national security concerns, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin fired back, warning that “The United States must not open Pandora’s box, or it will suffer the consequences.” Unfortunately, these words ring hollow with deep irony: it was China who opened Pandora’s box years ago, and the world is already suffering the consequences.

While the TikTok ban has been the subject of widespread debate and controversy in the U.S., the case for banning WeChat is much stronger, with concerns reaching far beyond just data harvesting. WeChat is primarily used in China, where it is essential to the functioning of Chinese society. The app covers everything from messaging and payment, to news and entertainment, to an entire ecosystem of integrated mini-programs that allow taxi-booking, online shopping and restaurant reservations. It is truly a super-app without peer, utilized by everyone from Chinese billionaires to panhandlers who accept WeChat Pay.

However, WeChat did not become indispensable through competition and consumer preference. WeChat’s near-monopoly on Chinese digital services was achieved with subsidies and assistance by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Global social media platforms, as well as several alternative messaging apps, are banned in China, and WeChat has a history of monopolizing practices that are aimed at excluding competitors. WeChat’s position as essential domestic infrastructure allows the CCP to easily aggregate information and consolidate control through surveillance without having to scour multiple platforms.

But WeChat is not only used in China. Across the world, Chinese and Chinese diaspora, as well as businesses with ties to China, rely on WeChat to communicate with friends, family and clients within the mainland. WeChat undoubtedly represents a crucial component of the U.S.-China relationship, but its necessity in enabling cross-country interactions hides a concerning, structural problem with the state of U.S.-China communications. Far from being an opening to infiltrate China’s Great Firewall as some have suggested, WeChat represents an alarming extension of China’s Great Firewall as an export to the world.

Unlike TikTok and its Chinese counterpart, Douyin, which are separate apps that do not interact with each other, all WeChat users download the same app, with the version depending on whether you register with a PRC or international phone number. The international version of WeChat is governed by separate terms and conditions that do not explicitly allow involvement from the Chinese government. While this dual version allows for international communications within a single platform, it blurs the line on whether WeChat is inside or outside of the Great Firewall.

WeChat’s Official Accounts, which post news and entertainment articles accessible to all WeChat users, are subject to censorship based on the detection of sensitive keywords. Analysis of Australian-based WeChat Official Accounts shows that the WeChat news ecosystem is distinct from mainstream Mandarin ethnic media, with WeChat news regularly failing to cover Chinese politics and foreign affairs, instead opting to publish content that emphasizes stronger cultural ties to China. While alternative ethnic media is nothing new, this disparity in news coverage is concerning for countries with significant Chinese diaspora populations, as WeChat has become the dominant source of information for many immigrant Chinese, despite having no reliable fact checking standards (WeChat’s anti-rumor campaign is unevenly applied and largely focuses on sensitive domestic issues). As a result, biased content and misinformation, borne from cultural misunderstandings, inaccurate translations or intentional distortions, rapidly spread in overseas Chinese communities. Research examining Official Accounts before the 2016 U.S. election showed that pervasive rumors and disinformation on WeChat contributed to a rising pro-Trump sentiment within Chinese-American immigrant circles. Xenophobic and far-right ideology has also spread through WeChat circles in Canada, which has instigated political protests based on sensationalized and fear-mongering articles.

In the private sphere, a specter of self-censorship looms over group chats and WeChat Moments. Research indicates that files and images shared between international accounts are automatically analyzed and used to train censorship algorithms for within-China users. Communications with PRC-registered accounts are subject to automatic censorship, and most WeChat users are aware that controversial rhetoric is extremely risky for themselves or their associates in China. As a result, users often keep group chats explicitly non-political, refuse to discuss controversial topics, and even report others’ controversial posts to distance themselves from blame. This threat is especially salient for the Chinese diaspora: posting controversial information could lead to strikes on your WeChat account, not only risking your line of communication with friends and family within China but also endangering recipients in mainland China.

Of course, WeChat’s unique ability to connect Chinese-speaking people has also benefited the Chinese diaspora immensely. Besides enabling contact with relatives and friends, WeChat has aided the Chinese-Americans in running local businesses, organizing relief efforts for Covid-19 and Hurricane Harvey, and maintaining supportive ethnic communities. Not all WeChat news sources are biased either; in Houston, local Official Accounts aided in dispelling rumors about coronavirus outbreaks in birthing centers and Chinese supermarkets. But these good deeds can hardly be discussed in a vacuum. WeChat is irreplaceable by design: due to the Great Firewall, those connecting with Chinese friends, family or businesses have no choice but to engage with WeChat and tolerate its propaganda, censorship and surveillance as enforced by the Chinese government. Rather than empowering Chinese people abroad, WeChat holds U.S.-China communications hostage in exchange for not only users’ data and attention, but also their passive support of the CCP regime. WeChat’s potential to asymmetrically influence public sentiment and political discourse holds immense potential in furthering China’s efforts to virtually enforce ideology on its overseas “sons and daughters.” With China’s online propaganda machine spanning global social media platforms, and Beijing’s United Front seeking to control the diaspora media through harassment and coercion, it would not be unreasonable to believe that WeChat also serves as a channel to promote CCP interests.

While the ban on WeChat has many problems (being potentially unlawful and/or unfeasible), leaving the app in its present state allows China to wield undue power over American citizens. WeChat’s monopolization of U.S.-China civilian communications leaves the U.S in a tough position, since threatening the app would directly hurt Chinese Americans and U.S. businesses. But Americans should not have to choose between communications with overseas family and free speech around sensitive political issues. Policymakers should push for WeChat to be more transparent and accountable through lawsuits and regulations since the app’s susceptibility to foreign influence and systematic censorship raise pressing First Amendment concerns. If the U.S. truly wants to uphold its values, it must shield the Chinese diaspora, especially dissidents, from the influence of the Chinese government.