When Bay Area artist Sai Li first heard of President Donald Trump’s WeChat ban, she thought it was a joke. But a quick online search confirmed that Trump’s executive order against American business transactions with WeChat’s Chinese parent company, Tencent, was in fact true.
“I was pretty devastated,” Li says. The news couldn’t have come at a worse time. She had recently found out her mother, who lives in mainland China, needed lung surgery. And given the ongoing pandemic, there was no realistic way of flying to see her in person.
“WeChat is the only thing I can use to be with my family during this rough time,” Li says.
Li, who immigrated to the United States when she was 24, uses the Chinese app to videochat with her mother and communicate with family and friends overseas. It’s not an uncommon situation for people within the Chinese diaspora. In fact, WeChat — a free multitasking app that allows you to text, call, and even send digital red envelopes of money (if you have a Chinese bank account) — is a “lifeline” for many immigrant families. Especially during a pandemic where the internet is the only safe and viable way to connect with people outside of your immediate household, a WeChat ban could lengthen the distance between diaspora families even further.
“Emotionally, it feels really strange that he suddenly, out of nowhere bans an app that’s used by so many Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants,” Li says. But the WeChat ban is just another step in Trump’s Cold War with China, a tense political relationship that seems to escalate every week.
Unfortunately, there are few alternatives to using WeChat: Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all banned in China. Moreover, these American-owned apps are missing an important facet that might be hard to replicate without WeChat: all of the pre-existing online communities that have been building through 500-person group chats since the app’s founding in 2011.
Crucially, advocacy groups and other organizations also use WeChat to disseminate information to those online communities, especially those that are monolingual. Local nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action and the San Francisco Unified School District are just two examples.
“It’s so critical for the school district to be able to communicate with our families and our students in language, specifically here in this instance, in Chinese,” Jenny Lam, a Commissioner on the Board of Education. In addition to email and the SFUSD website, WeChat is a resource where parents can learn about the latest school assignments, ask questions about enrollment, learn about lunch pick-up sites and keep up to date with other district news.
“What we heard from residents is that [WeChat is] an easier way to navigate,” Lam adds. Seniors and other residents impacted by the digital divide might have a difficult time pivoting to new platforms if they’re blocked from an app they’ve spent years using.
Chinese for Affirmative Action has also been using WeChat as a way to expand their Chinese language digital engagement for residents with limited English proficiency, particularly when it comes to immigrant rights and economic justice.
“We’ve expanded our work on WeChat as a platform to disseminate crucial, accurate and up-to-date information for the Chinese language community,” Hong Mei Pang, CAA’s Director of Advocacy, says.
On WeChat, CAA shares articles and videos about immigration policies, affirmative action, the census and other news necessary for San Francisco’s Chinese community to know. It helps counteract misinformation and confusion, especially as the Trump administration continues to change immigration policies.
“Rightfully so, our community — being very predominantly immigrant families — they have some concerns,” Pang says, in reference to the changing national immigration policies. CAA has been trying to bridge this information gap with WeChat videos. It’s also an attempt to “address language access barriers for parts of our community that might have low literacy levels, even in their own mother tongue.”
While other forms of communication exist — Pang points to Chinese-language newspapers as an example — WeChat has a “captive audience” that CAA can reach now.
What building that network without WeChat looks like is unclear, partially because the future of WeChat itself is still nebulous in the United States. Trump’s executive order bars American business transactions with WeChat, a vague command that could force Apple and Google to pull the app from their stores. Without the ability to download updates, WeChat will die a slow death unless a solution is found. This theory is speculative, and several companies like Apple and Disney have expressed concerns about the ban, and what it might entail for their own businesses.
For now, CAA and SFUSD are hoping to bolster and continue their other methods of reaching residents. And as for calling her family overseas, Li doesn’t know what to do. She’s thinking of installing a VPN, a common practice people in China use if they want to download any banned American apps. “It feels like I’m back in China,” Li says.
Li’s friends are really panicked about what the ban might mean. Li’s parents are worried, but they hope that this is just a “scare strategy” from Trump. Otherwise, countless people in the Chinese diaspora will have to find cheap alternatives if they want to communicate with loved ones overseas.
“WeChat is so embedded in people’s lives. It’s not just a fun app of young people posting videos,” Li says, referring to TikTok. “It’s a very important lifeline.”
Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.