For the global Chinese community, WeChat is more than a chat app – it’s often the primary way to stay in touch with friends and family at home.
So, the decision last week by US President Donald Trump to order US companies to stop doing business with WeChat sent shockwaves.
“WeChat has become the ‘roaming’ tool for Chinese speaking people wherever you are in the world,” a Shanghai resident told the BBC.
The billion-user app is primarily a social networking platform, but can be used for a multitude of everyday activities like shopping, gaming, and even dating.
But WeChat has a less innocent side. It is considered a key instrument of China’s internal surveillance apparatus.
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In an executive order, President Trump called WeChat a threat to U.S. national security and accused it of collecting “vast areas” of user data, threatening Americans’ personal and proprietary information.
WeChat owner TenCent has been ordered to sell the app by mid-September or face a ban on operations in the United States.
The decision to block WeChat, a prime example of Chinese technological innovation, is seen by many Chinese as an attack on their culture, its people and its state. In response to President Trump, the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused America of using national security as a cover to exercise its hegemony.
The Chinese diaspora in the United States was shocked by the move, and many people are worried – not just about staying in touch with loved ones, but what it means for China-U.S. Relations.
‘An unwanted signal’
Jennie, 21, is a student at the University of California and learned command while browsing WeChat.
“At first I didn’t believe it was true,” she told the BBC. “So I just felt very angry. ”
Jennie spends around four hours a day on WeChat, using it to contact people in the United States and China. She is also a vital source of information, and she spends a lot of time reading articles published on the public accounts of Chinese media, content creators and companies.
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On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Jennie posted a one-sentence memorial message. He was quickly deleted and his entire public account was gone.
She told the BBC that she was “very concerned” that WeChat will share its information with the Chinese government, but strongly opposes America’s blocking of the app.
“It would be similar to what China is doing – censoring,” Jennie said.
She used to post on her own public account, until it was censored by WeChat two years ago.
Jennie believes there should be an alternative to deal with the threats posed by WeChat, other than banning it altogether.
“I wanted to study in the United States because of its openness, but this movement burst my bubble. “
This feeling of disappointment is shared by other Chinese immigrants to the United States.
“I used to think of America as culturally inclusive,” says Miley Song, a Chinese immigrant in California. Washington’s decision sends “an unwanted signal” to Chinese immigrants to the country, she said.
The 30-year-old stay-at-home mom often uses the app to connect with her parents in China, who were panicking after hearing about Mr. Trump’s executive order.
But Ms. Song says she is cautiously optimistic. “The ban seems very vague, I think it can be difficult to ban WeChat entirely,” she said, “We’ll wait and see. “
While she isn’t particularly worried about the ban, she does worry about what it means for her future in America.
Amid a pandemic and with the presidential elections underway, Ms. Song believes the Trump administration is trying to distract from the rising death toll and falling polls.
“Otherwise, why has Trump focused on cracking down on Chinese apps now?” “
“It is fully integrated into people’s lives”
There are also concerns among those who returned to China after living and studying in America.
Rachel spent 10 years in the United States, many of them as a student in the capital, Washington, DC.
Now in Shanghai, WeChat has become “fully integrated into people’s daily lives,” she told the BBC.
“If you live in China, you can’t go anywhere without two major apps: one is WeChat, the other is AliPay,” Rachel said. “If you want to buy a bottle of milk, you open WeChat Pay or AliPay to scan the QR code and pay, and most stores don’t accept cash. “
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WeChat is also being used as a tracking tool to help the government contain the spread of the coronavirus.
While President Trump’s order will have little impact on his daily activities in China, Rachel said it may become more difficult to connect with people in the United States. As a result, she said some are exploring alternatives such as line of communications app or VPNs – virtual private networks that hide your computer’s location.
“It’s sad that it turns out that way,” says Rachel. “I see both sides, there is always good and bad in both societies, and I want to be neutral but it is more and more difficult to become neutral. “