Local Chinese Americans respond to prospective WeChat ban

October 7, 2020 — by Selina Chen
Photo by Selina Chen

Chinese Americans fall into disagreements and confusion over which app can be used to communicate with mainland China in the likelihood of a WeChat ban.

From boba to fresh fruits to a whole raw chicken, any grocery can be ordered from the WeChat group chat “Saratoga 送货上门团购1群,” or “Saratoga deliver-to-the-door group purchase chat 1.” 

 Freshman Minh Do’s mother Grace Liu is a frequent user of the popular platform. This grocery delivery group chat became so popular that it has reached WeChat system’s maximum limit of 500 members, so several additional groups had to be created, many of which have been filled as well.

Liu said that these groups help both sellers and consumers.

“It's almost like your personal shopper,” Liu said. “After the shelter-in-place order, it's a very convenient way for you to get food. It’s especially important for the Chinese-American community because we have particular needs such as buying goodies during Chinese holidays.”

Group-purchasing chats are only a small fraction of what the multi-functional social media app WeChat is used for by Saratoga’s Chinese-American community. But on Aug. 6, President Donald Trump issued an executive order calling for a WeChat ban because the app “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” Despite the order being temporarily halted by a judge on Sept. 19, the ban is a looming threat to Saratoga’s WeChat users.

WeChat was developed by the Chinese company Tencent Technology in 2011 and now has more than 1 billion users worldwide. Since China has banned popular American platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Discord and Reddit, Chinese Americans have limited options for contacting people living in mainland China — and the most popular by far is WeChat.

Junior Katherine Chen moved from Shanghai, China, to Saratoga six years ago after completing fourth grade, a difficult transition due to the lasting relationships she had already made. In China, students’ classes do not change for the entirety of elementary school, and Chen had formed close bonds with her classmates and teachers.

“Right now, WeChat is the only way for me to communicate with them,” Chen said. “Whenever I go back to Shanghai for vacation, I schedule meet-ups with my friends by texting them on WeChat.”

To Chen, WeChat is also the primary way she connects with her family. During Chinese New Year, Chen’s relatives in China send her money through the Red Packets feature, a money-transfer function, because they cannot be physically together to exchange red packets and celebrate the holiday.

When President Trump’s executive order stated that WeChat would be banned on Sept. 20, Chen said she was surprised and upset.

“I was really stressed because I had to ask all two hundred of my friends and teachers for their phone number or ask them for their other social media accounts,” Chen said. “I also had to take out the money I had in WeChat.”

Senior Anthony Qin also said he was shocked that President Trump was taking action against WeChat, despite there being rumors about a WeChat ban for months.

Qin uses WeChat primarily for his club, Aspiring to Create English (ACE), in which members act as tutors to help foreign students with their English. ACE has numerous group chats with students in countries such as China, Japan, Indian, Germany and Australia, as well as a page on which the officers post articles about American culture and other topics of curiosity.

When the ban was announced, the ACE club took immediate precautionary measures.

“We turned off automatic app updates and background app refresh in settings because we suspect if WeChat is updated it may go away,” Qin said. “I'm not too sure how it works, but it's what I found online.”

However, Qin said that being unable to use WeChat would not be a crippling blow, as ACE club is looking into alternative platforms such as Skype that are not censored in China and India.

Junior Joshua Fang has also turned to other platforms in face of the WeChat ban, downloading app after app to connect with different friend groups — GroupMe, Line, Skype, Telegram, Slack, and QQ, to name a few.

“The problem is that different Chinese American communities switch to different platforms,” Fang said. “Before, we were all connected through WeChat, but now there is disagreement and confusion.”

Fang said that one reason behind WeChat’s popularity is its money-transfer feature which, although less relevant here in the U.S., is still important. In China, people are moving away from cash and credit cards, instead preferring to use WeChat Pay for everything from shopping at malls to buying street food. This dependency on WeChat meant that it is by far the most widely used app in China and often the only app the older generation knows how to use, he said.

Another important feature is WeChat's ability to send files in almost any format, Fang said. When he collaborated with a friend in China on a project, they found sending drafts back and forth through WeChat to be much easier than email. Fang’s father also uses WeChat to send files to his business in China.

Fang said he believes that banning WeChat does not alleviate the U.S. government’s concerns. The most popular platform Chinese Americans are switching to in order to connect with people in China is QQ, which is developed by Tencent, the same company that owns WeChat. In addition, WeChat users can sidestep the ban by using a VPN.

“The ban doesn’t achieve anything,” Fang said. “I think most of us WeChat users already know we are being monitored — it's pretty widespread knowledge here. If we’re aware of the risk, and we still use it, then why should the U.S. government try to limit our use of WeChat?”

Chen said that since there are more than a billion WeChat users, the Chinese government doesn't care as long as she doesn’t say anything outrageous.

“It's not like they can come to your door and capture you or anything,” Chen said.

Liu said she was not especially concerned about the Chinese government’s surveillance since she doesn't talk about politics on WeChat anyway. Unlike the younger generation who have been using WeChat since they owned a phone, Liu sees it as a new invention.

In 2011, she started using WeChat for communication purposes with her friends and family, but gradually it became a mixed platform for entertainment as well, largely due to features such as “Moments” in which users post about their daily lives in a fashion similar to that of Instagram and Facebook.

“I would say banning WeChat has a beneficial side for me because the entertainment part in WeChat feels like a distraction to my daily life,” Liu said. “I don't mind it being taken away.”

Liu immigrated to the U.S. 15 years ago, a time when WeChat had not yet existed and she had to buy phone cards all the time to make communications work. She said she doesn’t mind going back to text messaging and is curious as to why people are reacting strongly to the WeChat ban.

“The truth is, a lot of the needs the community uses WeChat for are WeChat-created needs,” Liu said. “WeChat is a new thing, and we can live without it.”

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