Momentum is growing behind a bill in Congress to do what we’ve been arguing for in this column for close to two years, i.e. banning Chinese social media app TikTok. It’s the app that some term China’s “Trojan horse” for inserting Beijing’s control over U.S. user’s data and hearts and minds. At the same time, China’s other social media Trojan Horse, WeChat, and its parent company Tencent, have been getting a lot less attention.
When the Trump administration banned TikTok from U.S. markets in 2020—a ban which a federal judge blocked and then the Biden administration reversed—the executive order included another Chinese social media app, WeChat. While not as psychologically menacing as the TikTok app with its invasive ByteDance algorithms, WeChat may pose an even greater danger from the angle that alarmed government officials from the very start, as an app that gives the Chinese government direct access to user data in the US.
WeChat is the world’s biggest messaging app with over 1.2 billion global users, almost of all of whom live in China. Chinese citizens use it the way Americans use text messaging, in addition to paying for some online services. It’s one of the few Chinese social media that works both in and out of China (TikTok, for example, provides a different service for foreign users than the Chinese themselves use). And users in China understand that the government is monitoring ever word and image they say or post on WeChat-and that the government censors what the government doesn’t like.
In 2020, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab found that WeChat imposes real-time automatic censorship of chat images through a mix of text recognition, visual recognition, and detection of detecting duplicate files. Once WeChat picks up an image that’s subject to restriction, it immediately blocks all users from sending that image.
This was rammed home this past October 13, two days before the 20th Communist Party Congress, protesters hung banners on a Beijing overpass that read, “Say no to Covid test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom,” and “Go on strike, remove the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping.”
According to MIT Technology Review, like another Chinese social media app, Weibo, WeChat immediately restricted user content that included words like “Beijing,” “bridge,” and “brave” from being searched. WeChat users quickly knew that if they dared to post a single picture of the event—even in a private group chat—they would be subject to a permanent ban.
Being banned from WeChat is no joke. It means becoming a digital “non-person”, with access blocked to digital services tied to their accounts, from health QR codes to online subscriptions. It can take days, even weeks, to become a digital “person,” with a new account—-that is, if the government permits reinstatement.
Still, censorship is only one of the problems with WeChat. While the app only edits out content from users with phone numbers from mainland China, its surveillance is far-reaching.
That includes Chinese users living in the United States, such as students and visa holders. Today there are approximately 600,000 WeChat subscribers in Australia, 1.3 million in the UK, and 1.5 million in the United States. Most use WeChat for innocent purposes like staying in touch with friends and family back home,, but the fact that the government has access to their location and other personal data via various backdoors allowing third parties to read the messages being sent and received, means Chinese citizen living abroad become a covert spy service for Beijing, whether they want to be or not.
The information the app collects from its billion-plus users is controlled by its parent company Tencent. Tencent has been in trouble with the Chinese government before, for being slow to implement its dictates. These days, if authorities want certain data from WeChat, they will get it, including any data originating here in the U.S.
WeChat has tried to get around this issue by pointing out that its servers are kept outside mainland China. In fact, all user data goes to servers in Hong Kong; where, under Hong Kong’s new National Security Legislation, data servers are expected to obey Beijing orders just as they do in on the mainland. In short, it’s a distinction without a difference.
In addition, some researchers have suggested that WeChat apps might include spyware, that could be passed stealthily to non-Chinese users via WeChat-loaded smart phones.
All in all, the truth about WeChat paints an alarming picture of a serious security threat, as well as a sinister way the Chinese Communist Party can monitor its citizens abroad and keep them in ideological line.
As with TikTok, it’s time to call out WeChat and cut the social media cord. A comprehensive WeChat ban will not only keep the data about Americans from passing into Beijing’s hands, but free Chinese living here from President Xi’s social media iron boot.