Sept. 11, 2020 | By Angelina Chen | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
On Aug. 6, the social media feed of Chinese international students and Chinese Americans with family in China was flooded with news about a presidential executive order. TikTok, a Chinese-owned, video-sharing social networking platform, has long been under attack as an alleged threat to national security. In this executive order, a new target of restrictions emerged, unsettling nearly 370,000 students and 2.9 million immigrants in the country.
The order sought to forbid “transactions” with WeChat and TikTok on the grounds that they “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” Without specifying the scope of the order, it, nonetheless, elucidated this — after the ban goes into effect on Sept. 20, WeChat may not ever be the same for users in the U.S.
WeChat is a messaging, social media, and electronic payment app owned by the Chinese company Tencent Holdings Ltd. Services available on the app encompass almost all aspects of life in China. Users can chat, share posts, pay utilities, shop, and book tickets in this single ‘super app.’ With Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, along with many other social media platforms, banned in China, WeChat is also the most commonly used app for people straddling China and the U.S.
Indeed, users’ dependency on WeChat risks users having their privacy encroached upon and being confined in an echo chamber. It is an unspoken truth that the Chinese government can view all chat history on the app, and the internet police constantly censors messages and posts that include sensitive content according to the Chinese Communist Party. Such unbounded access has been instrumental in suppressing activists, human rights lawyers, and dissidents in China.
There is some validity in the Trump’s administration’s claim that “this data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” Still, this order also acts as part of Trump’s latest electioneering tactic aimed at stoking anti-China sentiments to deflect attention away from his catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic in the U.S.
The executive order drew on an imaginary picture of the submissive Chinese masses “who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives” by coming to the U.S. Such framing, firstly, dismisses the history of oppression and the ongoing struggles for racial equity, for a truly ‘free society,’ in this country. Additionally, it promotes the deep-seated xenophobia and racism against people of Chinese descent in American society.
Whether the order strengthens national security or not, this political move has immediate implications for Chinese people in the U.S. Depending on the scope of the restriction, the sole channel of communication between Chinese students and their families, Chinese Americans and their relatives in China, and first-generation Chinese immigrants and grassroots community organizations, may be cut.
To be sure, WeChat has played a role in spreading misinformation about U.S. elections and popularizing Trumpism among first-generation Chinese Americans. But it is also a bridge between the U.S. and China, as well as a lifeline for newcomers, especially undocumented immigrants. Community organizations in Chinatowns across the country have been using WeChat to support undocumented workers who are facing forced evictions, unfair dismissals, unemployment, and deportation. For them, the connections they built on WeChat, free from the surveillance of the FBI and ICE, are their best chance of survival.
Though some organizations are already shifting to other foreign-owned messaging platforms, such as LINE, to sustain connections with their clients, the climate of suspicion still looms for every Chinese person in the U.S. This order, along with other executive orders and policy changes that target Chinese communities, fuels a new form of McCarthyism in the current political era. Suspicion and antagonism against people of Chinese descent, or anyone who looks East Asian, are legitimized.
At Colorado College, this potential ban specifically poses a challenge for Chinese nationals and Chinese American students who contact their family in China using WeChat. Even if the students switch to a different app, are their family members tech-savvy enough to navigate another social media app and a VPN (a private network that enables access to banned apps and webpages)? Would Chinese students be barred from certain jobs or areas of studies in the name of protecting national security? Would students face even more overt racist aggression for looking East Asian?
Whatever the outcome of the potential ban, within higher education, all students, faculty, and staff should be wary of a possible ‘red scare’ that targets students of Chinese nationality and could contribute to anti-Asian racism.