On July 12, Bloomberg published an article by Yueqi Yang, in which she reports that, “White House adviser Peter Navarro said he expects President Donald Trump to take ‘strong action’ against Chinese-owned social media apps TikTok and WeChat for engaging in ‘information warfare’ against the U.S.”
Both TikTok and WeChat are social media apps developed by Chinese companies. TikTok, a video sharing app, has many users of a wide variety of ethnicity. The majority of WeChat users, however, are Chinese diaspora worldwide. Banning WeChat in the U.S. would have a huge impact on the Chinese American community.
First released in 2011, WeChat started as a messaging app. It enables users to send text, voice and video messages as well as make voice and video calls. Another important feature is called “Moments.” It allows users to post photos so that their contacts know what they are up to. The app also has a group function. Any user can start a WeChat group and invite up to 499 friends. WeChat groups are good for sending out notices, organizing events, and direct sales. Later on, WeChat introduced “official accounts” which are similar to webzines or blogs. On average, most users follow between ten and 50 WeChat official accounts.
Since China bans WhatsApp, Telegraph, Line, Facebook, Twitter, etc., Chinese people only have access to apps developed and owned by Chinese companies, like WeChat, Weibo and QQ (which like WeChat, is owned by Tencent). Of the three, WeChat has the largest market share. The typical Chinese American’s day begins with checking their WeChat first thing in the morning and to like whatever their friends and family in China posted on their moments the day before. They would check group notices multiple times a day because they belong to many virtual groups. If they have kids going to school, they rely on WeChat groups organized by Chinese parents to get information since schools only send out notices in English. After dinner, they read the latest articles from the official accounts they follow.
Chinese Americans rely on WeChat for two reasons. First: China bans platforms developed in foreign companies. The only social media platform that links Chinese immigrants to their friends and family in China is WeChat. Second: The majority of Chinese immigrants living in America read Chinese more fluently than English.
Navarro’s statement aroused mixed reactions from the Chinese American community. Some fear that they would be cut off from their friends and family back in China, but some think it is good for the Chinese Americans in the long run. I belong to the latter group of people. I support banning WeChat because, first and foremost, I had an unfortunate experience using it. Here is my story:
I started using WeChat around 2013. In May 2019, I published a memoir depicting my experience of the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989, which is still a taboo topic in China. When I posted about my book on WeChat, my account was suspended. “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumors and has been permanently blocked,” said Tencent.
The next thing I did was register for a second one. It took me a month to reconnect with about a fifth of my old contacts. Still, I hadn’t learned from my previous ban and I continued promoting my book. One day in June, my second WeChat account died too.
This time, they didn’t even give a reason. I pressed WeChat icon on my phone, and an alert popped up, which read, “We detected suspicious activity on this account. Since the safety of your account is our first priority, we need to verify your status.” I clicked through and it sent a verification code to my phone. After I typed it in, a square with a missing corner appeared at one end of my screen. I was supposed to drag the square to the other end for it to be re-united with its missing corner. I moved my finger carefully. It announced that it took me 55 seconds and asked me to do it again. Was I too slow to use WeChat? I tried again. 27s! Was I fast enough? The response finally came back, “We didn’t detect any WeChat account associated with this phone number.”
Since they didn’t have the number on file, I figured I could just use the same number to register for another account. I deleted the app and downloaded it again. After I typed in my phone number, a weird thing happened. The app showed me my old avatar and asked, “Is this you?” I answered “yes,” and the verification process started again. Is 35s good enough? The signal indicating progress continued blinking and the verification process seemed never to end. It appeared that their server was working very hard to protect me. After about twenty minutes, I gave up and started all over again. When asked “Is this you?” I answered “no.” But I couldn’t fool the system. They gave me a flat denial, saying that “registration couldn’t be completed.”
Tencent doesn’t formally announce that a WeChat account registered with a U.S. phone number is blocked when it is blocked, which is really sneaky. For the owner, it is the perplexing process of verification which never comes through. For the owner’s friends, it is the confusion that they’ll never get response. When my friends contacted me on my first blocked account, the server would inform them that my account had been “abnormal,” so they would know that my account was blocked and try other ways of contacting me. When my friends contacted me on my second blocked account, they simply never heard back. Many friends assumed that they had offended me for reasons that they would never figure out. To this day I have no way of guessing how many friends I’d lost simple because of the misunderstandings WeChat created.
The main reason I couldn’t give up on WeChat account yet was to contact my parents in China. Hence I registered a third WeChat account. I’d learned my lesson, and I decided not to say a word about my book. Actually, I didn’t get to say anything at all on my Moments. About a week later, my third account was banned too. It was clear that they didn’t block this account for unacceptable contents. They did it because I was its owner.
How could they have known it was me? I registered my WeChat account with a pseudonym, and Tencent has no way of knowing the ownership of a U.S. phone number. My mind was clouded with doubts but I still wanted to take my chances. I purchased another new phone number and applied for a fourth WeChat account. I even went through the trouble of getting a number with a different area code. This fourth WeChat only lasted half a day.
I gave up on WeChat for a couple months. Right before the Mid-Autumn festival 2019, when I thought it was probably long enough for them to forget about me, I registered for my fifth WeChat account. I was lucky that I was able to wish my parents a happy holiday. My fifth WeChat account was blocked half an hour later.
I came up with a theory about how they determined that a new account belonged to a previously banned user. They monitored my parents’ contact list. I had only one contact on my fifth account: my father. Tencent understands that the only reason a Chinese person in the U.S. uses WeChat is to contact their family in China. When Tencent’s internal systems find a new account registered in the U.S that tries to contact my parents, they decide that its owner omust be me.
I was determined to give up on WeChat for good, but I ended up registering for a sixth WeChat account when my son started at a new school. On his first day, I met a group of Chinese parents, who ceremoniously whipped out their phones to scan each other’s WeChat QR codes. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by explaining why I didn’t have a WeChat account, so I chose to conform.
Believing in my own theory about how Tecent detected the real identity of a WeChat account, I refrained from contacting my parents. So far, I’ve amassed almost 200 new contacts on my sixth WeChat account, but my parents aren’t among them. I fear that I would lose this account if I try to add them. I signed up for an international plan through my phone carrier and call my parents the old-fashioned way.
I also avoid joining WeChat groups organized by my college friends. I am pretty sure that my WeChat account was banned the first time because someone snitched, and that person was a Beijing University alumnus. I dare not let him/her know of my new WeChat account.
It’s true that banning WeChat would cut off Chinese immigrants from their friends and family in China, but it is also true that the Chinese propaganda agencies use WeChat for ‘information warfare’ against the U.S. On top of censoring the WeChat users' speeches, agents who work for China are active in various WeChat groups, posing as just another fellow immigrant while trying to obtain information and recruit taltents. There have always been job advertisements published in WeChat groups targeting on scientists. Recently, in response to an FBI investigation, all the advertisements claim that Chinese job recruiters would pledge to keep employment matters secret. The other day, a WeChat user commented in a group that it was very easy for China to interfere with American elections. If they ban Chinese factories from making banners and flags for Trump, “Trump supporters would only be able to rally using hand-written flags and banners.”
Determining how to filter out CCP propaganda from WeChat without inconveniencing Chinese Americans is a difficult job. Still, I’m glad to see that WeChat banned. It will be an inconvenience at first, but it will ultimately be good for Chinese Americans. They’ll find ways to reach their friends and family eventually, and they’ll have less of a chance of being brainwashed.
A few days ago, in response to the rumors of a WeChat ban, alumni of my college started organizing groups on WhatsApp, Line and Telegram. I joined without hesitation. I was so happy to reconnect with my friends on free virtual territory. The snitch I suspected is likely also in those groups, but he/she poses no harm to me because they couldn’t work to block my account anymore.
But we are still cut off from our alumni in China, and that is a regret. I think the ultimate resolution to this problem is to pressure China into tearing down the Great Firewall built to check the free flow of information.
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in West Germany and called on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” Even after so many years, watching clips of Reagan’s speech still brings tears to my eyes. “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union & Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Reagan says calmly. The audience responds with stormy applause. Two years after that speech, the world finally saw the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Chinese consumers deserve to enjoy things like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Line, WhatsApp, YouTube, Netflix among so many. Tearing down the Great Firewall will enable Chinese netizens to finally connect to the world. It will benefit the Chinese people at absolutely no cost to the United States. It will be a true win-win.
I wish that Trump would address China’s president in the same spirit that Reagan regarded his Russian counterpart. I wish that one day, Trump will tweet, “If you seek prosperity for China… If you seek liberalization… Mr. Xi, tear down this wall.”