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WeChat Is a Trap for China’s Diaspora

App’s Dominance Forces People to Adopt Self-Censorship

Published in: Foreign Policy
WeChat logo backdrop for product concept presentation. © 2012 Sinchen Lin (via Flickr)

On August 6, President Donald Trump released two executive orders barring US transactions with the Chinese tech companies ByteDance, which owns TikTok, and Tencent, the owner of WeChat, related to those services.

It is unclear what exactly the bans will entail, but a ban on WeChat will likely create significant disruptions for communications and business transactions between people in China and the United States and possibly the rest of the world. That has caused concern and upset—with good reason. Yet while the political motivation behind Trump’s ban and its free speech implications are reasons for concern, the threat WeChat poses should also be taken seriously. WeChat isn’t just a tool for many users; it’s a trap.

With monthly active users of over 1.2 billion worldwide, WeChat is a super-app that combines the functions of social media, messaging, financial services, travel, food delivery, ride-hailing, and other apps. It is so convenient that for people in China it is as unimaginable not to have WeChat as not to have a smartphone.

That’s partially a result of good programming and partially of deliberate policy. The Chinese government shuts out foreign tech companies, puts up a Great Firewall to block websites that don’t comply with its censorship regime, and penalizes people who try to circumvent it. At the same time, it nurtures a handful of domestic platforms like WeChat that censor and surveil their users on its behalf and hand over user data to the government when so-called sensitive information is discovered. Authorities also directly embed cybersecurity police units in major internet companies.

WeChat has thus become a complete digital ecosystem where people in China lead their entire digital lives, and they are trapped in its controlled information environment without meaningful choice.

Anyone outside the country who wants to connect with people in China has to use what is available in China and thus also gets sucked into the Chinese government’s machinery of censorship and surveillance. International WeChat users are estimated at between 100 million and 200 million; there are an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States. A recent study by Citizen Lab showed that WeChat surveils its users outside China to build up the database it uses to censor China-registered accounts. As international users are governed by terms of service and privacy policies of Singapore, it is unclear whether WeChat shares this information with the Chinese government. But it is essential to remember that all Chinese companies are subject to government control.

Those free speech implications don’t just apply inside China.

The centrality of WeChat in information acquisition and communication among the Chinese diaspora, especially first-generation immigrants from China, should be a source of real concern elsewhere.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been interviewing members of the Chinese diaspora around the world on the Chinese government’s activities undermining human rights abroad. A reoccurring problem I run into is that some of my sources only wanted to use WeChat to communicate, mainly because they had not installed any other messaging apps.

For sure, some immigrants also have WhatsApp, and some use Telegram. But everyone has WeChat, so, naturally, people congregate on WeChat. The pull of WeChat is so strong that communication among first-generation Chinese immigrants is often exclusively done via the app.

Chinese law requires internet companies to store internet logs and relevant data for at least six months to assist law enforcement. WeChat’s own privacy policy notes that it may need to “retain, disclose and use” user information in response to requests from the government. Hence, the Chinese government can—if it wants—know a lot about the people who have left China, down to things like who is meeting whom, at what time, and where. And because WeChat is a payment app as well, it can see to whom they send money or from whom they get it or even who pays for dinner.

WeChat is also where many members of the Chinese diaspora obtain information, including about the countries they immigrated to. A survey of Mandarin speakers in Australia found that 60 percent of those polled identified WeChat as their primary source of news and information, while only 23 percent said they regularly accessed news from mainstream Australian media such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Some of the most popular publications catering to the diaspora originated on WeChat. In order to attract readership, traditional Chinese-language media outlets now also publish through WeChat. In this sense, news produced by a local Chinese-language outlet in New York goes through censors in Beijing before it reaches the Chinese-speaking community in New York.

People often ask me why Chinese immigrants still primarily read news from WeChat when other sources of information—uncensored by the Chinese government—are readily available. First, it is the power of habit. We all consume information from channels that we are used to. Then there is the shared way of speaking and writing and common cultural and historical experiences that bind people who grow up in China.

Perhaps somewhat unique to mainland Chinese, growing up in an environment where information control is all encompassing, you are told that criticism of the Chinese government is the result of malicious intent by “foreign forces,” and hearing news and ideas contrary to what you were taught and believed in a one-party state can be jarring and can take a long time to get accustomed to.

The impact of living online in WeChat’s ecosystem means that people outside China are subjected to the same censorship and propaganda, which shapes their worldview in ways more amenable to the Chinese government. Even people who only use WeChat to communicate with people in China are generally aware of its censorship and surveillance capabilities and may self-censor, even unconsciously. The effects can be insidious, as I remember firsthand from my own youth in China. The government’s censorship rules are never clear, and enforcement is never consistent. Nobody knows where the red line is. So to play it safe, you try to stay far away from sensitive issues. When you can’t talk about something, you gradually learn to avoid thinking about it in the first place. After self-censorship becomes a deeply ingrained behavior, shifting to live in a free environment doesn’t mean you can immediately shake off old habits. It can take a lifetime.

The US government should address WeChat’s specific threats to the human rights of people on its soil in a proportionate, transparent, and lawful manner that respects the right to freedom of expression. To mitigate WeChat’s harm, for example, the US government should invest in open-source technologies that can enable people in China to more easily circumvent censorship and provide other channels of communication. The US government should also support independent Chinese-language media so Chinese-speaking people can have a variety of choices for uncensored news and information. But most fundamentally, the United States should strengthen its own data protection laws. If all companies were required to practice data minimization for all users in the United States, the risk of it being harvested by any actors, foreign or domestic, would be greatly reduced.

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