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WeChat’s worst mischiefs: why it won’t be missed in the US

Microsoft and Twitter are in preliminary talks to buy TikTok from the Chinese company ByteDance. This means hope for more than 100 million TikTok users in the US. But what about WeChat and its 19 million users in the US? And why will it not be missed there?

Of course, WeChat, in case it’s banned, is going to be missed by a lot of people elsewhere. As social networks, such as Messenger or WhatsApp, are banned in China, WeChat has been providing an alternative to connect scattered families.

Kai-Fu Lee tweet screenshot

Despite this, the wrongdoings of WeChat in China and abroad are well documented. Therefore, the WeChat ban in the US might be greeted cheerfully.

What happens now?

President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring US companies from doing business with Chinese Tencent after September 20, unless it finds a new non-Chinese owner for WeChat.

“The application captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives,” the executive order states.

The representatives of Tencent are not giving explicit comments about the document. At this point, it is unclear whether WeChat could continue its operations after September if it is not sold. Moreover, unlike TikTok, it does not have any potential buyers.

TikTok’s owner ByteDance has until September 15 to reach a deal with Microsoft. Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal reported, Twitter is in pursuit to buy the Chinese social media platform too.

According to Apptopia, WeChat has 19 million users in the US alone, and about a billion users worldwide.

This social media app is used for communications, electronic payments, banking, and shopping. And while there’s a chance that TikTok’s American business will be sold to avoid a ban in the US, the future of WeChat is much more uncertain.

Tencent building with a logo

“We chat, they watch”

Research group Citizen Lab has been looking into WeChat for many years already. In May 2020, their experts published a 60-page study which shows how WeChat censors politically sensitive information outside of China.

The Toronto-based researchers revealed that WeChat communications conducted entirely among non-China-registered accounts are subject to pervasive content surveillance. Previously, it was thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.

Documents and images transmitted entirely among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance where these files are analyzed for content that is politically sensitive in China. Images can be censored in real-time.

You can read the full study here.

It censored Americans talking about Hong Kong

Last November, pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong captured 389 of 452 elected seats, up from 124 in local district council elections. It was a huge victory after months of protests in the streets of Hong Kong. But not everyone was able to celebrate online.

As reported by The Verge, WeChat was censoring political messages, and even disabling people’s accounts if they publicly supported the movement. Americans were censored as well.

Bin Xie, an information security analyst in Texas, lost his account because he wrote “The pro-China candidates totally lost.” He was one of many Chinese Americans who were censored.

Read more: Lui from Hong Kong: I no longer feel I can freely express myself

Censorship over COVID-19

WeChat was extensively criticized for handling private data. As reported by the Guardian, during the pandemic it ran a hotline to report people who might be sick.

Moreover, as Citizen Lab found out, WeChat blocked criticism of China’s president Xi Jinping from the beginning of the year. As the outbreak of the coronavirus grew, the social media app started censoring more keywords about COVID-19.

Citizen Lab tweet screenshot

This censorship began a few days after doctors tried to warn the country about the then-unknown virus.

WeChat censored even neutral coronavirus-related content. Censored content included criticism of the government, rumors and speculative information on the epidemic, references to Dr. Li Wenliang (the first doctor to warn others about the virus), and neutral references to Chinese government efforts on handling the outbreak that had been reported on state media.

Students warned not to use WeChat

Last year, students from California were warned not to use social media and messaging apps during their stay in China, CNN reported.

Tensions between China and the US rose as Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver at the request of the US over alleged violations of Iran sanctions.

Social media, such as WhatsApp or WeChat, are legal in China, but there were fears they could be used for spying on Americans, and their communications could be used against them. These fears were based on the recent story of a US citizen detained in Russia where his WhatsApp was cited in his espionage charges.

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