For many local Chinese Americans and immigrants from China, the social media app WeChat is a lifeline to government services, community events, friends, and family living on the other side of the Pacific.
If the Trump administration has its way, it’ll be taken away.
"We are so disappointed, not just because he’s making this hateful language as calling it [the coronavirus] the Chinese flu or the China virus,” said Wei Chen, civic engagement coordinator of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia organization focused on fighting discrimination against the Asian community, "but banning WeChat is a hateful action he takes, trying to attack Chinese or China.”
The app serves not only as a connection with family overseas, but as the foundation of networking, organizing, and communication for many of the more than 35,000 Philadelphians who are Chinese immigrants or of Chinese descent through the U.S. Census as of 2015, with another 38,326 in the surrounding Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs. A ban would prevent the app from being downloaded and bar people who have it from accessing routine upgrades to keep it functional.
“If this disappears for the Chinese residents of my district, their ability to communicate and interact with friends, neighbors, businesses, family, will be cut off and they will be bereft,” said state Rep. Jared Solomon, whose Northeast Philadelphia district includes one of region’s largest populations of Chinese Americans.
The threat of a ban announced in an August executive order has caused a run on the app, with more than 389,000 downloads reported so far in August and September, according to Apptopia, a mobile app intelligence company. That’s about 40,000 more downloads than in the previous two months.
WeChat, owned by the Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings, combines features of Facebook, Venmo, Google Drive, Twitter, Zoom, and text messaging in one app for smartphones and desktops. The Trump administration is concerned data gathered on WeChat and TikTok, another Chinese-owned social media app that has become hugely popular in the United States, could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
The U.S. Commerce Department was supposed to enforce the ban on Sept. 20, but a federal judge delayed it after a group of WeChat users sued, saying the executive order infringed on free speech. WeChat’s threat to national security was modest, the judge said. The Commerce Department has said it will challenge the injunction.
Due to the Chinese government’s own digital restrictions, WeChat is one of the few social media apps accessible in both China and the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a balm for people worried about loved ones thousands of miles away.
“They want to see our faces," said Tong Su, a pastor at the Church of Grace to Fujianese, a Protestant church in Northeast Philadelphia, who has used the app to have weekly family video chats with siblings in the United States and his parents in China. “If they see the face, it’s easier for them to feel comfort that we’re OK.”
Chelsea Zhang, 23, a recent graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s master’s program in city planning and a native of Shenzen, China, says she has been using WeChat since she was a teenager. Frequent, free communication through the app soothed her parents' fears about her health.
“I was able to call my parents every single day,” she said. “I would say compared to earlier generations, it’s really useful to us because we don’t need to pay to call our parents at home.”
Between 3.6 million and 3.7 million people on mobile devices in the United States were active on the app in each of the first four months of this year when COVID-19 was surging in China, then in this country, according to App Annie, a mobile data and analytics provider. In August, the most current data available, the app had about 3.3 million users in the U.S.
WeChat is also deeply embedded in the fabric of life for Chinese Americans, the rare digital tool embraced across generations.
When the pandemic made meeting in person impossible, Su used WeChat’s video function to host Bible studies. Chen found it invaluable for discussing incidents of discrimination faced by Philadelphia’s Asian communities as the coronavirus began spreading in the United States.
“It’s hurtful for us, even more hurtful for immigrants,” he said. “They know people are staring at them and they have no idea how to respond.”
Zhang and her grad school friends share a list of daily and monthly goals on the app, and use it to check in on one anothers’ progress. The accountability helped give her motivation to finish an online business course.
WeChat has proven essential to the Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association’s efforts to prevent immigrants who aren’t confident speaking English from missing out on city services and being left out of the city’s civic life, said Mingchu “Pearl” Huynh, the organization’s president and founder. Through WeChat, she can reach as many as 10,000 people in the region. On any given day, she said, her organization can participate in disseminating to Philadelphia’s Chinese-speaking population information on COVID-19 tests, gun safety, kung fu lessons, and voter registration. Losing the app, she said, would force her to rebuild a contact base it took her three years to assemble.
“I do my community business, all relying on this,” she said. “Imagine if I lost this service?”
This isn’t the first time Chinese tech has drawn concern from the U.S. government. Tensions exacerbated by the trade war between Washington and Beijing, but with some legitimate concerns about how the Chinese government could use data culled from apps. Federal authorities have blocked or opposed Chinese companies' efforts to acquire a money transfer company, the dating app Grindr, and a mobile marketing firm, Reuters reported.
WeChat’s users are aware that what they put on there could be subject to government surveillance and said they act accordingly. Su, the minister, said he doesn’t share anything private. Chen noted the U.S. government monitors social media as well. He didn’t think anything he shared on WeChat would be of interest to the Chinese government.
“A lot of people know that it’s kind of a problem, but we also sort of live with it because it seems like there’s no messaging app that doesn’t have any privacy issues,” Zhang, the former Penn student, said. “We just bear with the idea that we have to live with it.”