So ubiquitous has WeChat become that users pay their electricity bills and order their shopping while video-calling their friends without putting down their smartphones. To put WeChat’s penetration into perspective 1 billion out of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens use the app. That’s 80 per cent of the world’s most populous country.
To date, TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing app that hooked 1.6 million Australians through snap dance routines, lip syncs and pranks, has captured most of the attention of regulators.
But Trump’s sudden decision on Friday morning to issue two executive orders and ban US residents from doing any business with WeChat, along with TikTok, from September 15 is much more significant.
The market’s reaction on Friday morning reveals the scale of the impact. Shares in Tencent, the owner of WeChat, plummeted 10 per cent on Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index, shedding more than $90 billion within two hours.
The human impact is likely to be much larger. In banning WeChat, the White House effectively cuts off the only widely used form of communication available to 6 million people of Chinese background in the US and their families in China. So integral is the app that Chinese students will reconsider their desire to study in the US and businesses will reassess their employees’ futures in America.
The platform is also a key method of disseminating information to the Chinese-speaking population that might not be able to engage with mainstream media. In Australia, the app has delivered political messages in the lead-up to elections, translated news coverage and functions as a digital neighbourhood watch where language is a barrier to conventional services.
Fundamentally, the Trump administration believes WeChat and TikTok pose a national security threat by collecting information that could be shared with the Chinese Communist Party and censoring content that is unfavourable to Beijing.
“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information,” Trump said on Friday.
“In addition, 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 Australian government does not hold the same view and, while it had earlier raised concerns about both services, it no longer intends to kick either out despite Trump’s executive order incorrectly claiming Australia had begun “restricting or banning the use of WeChat”.
Minister for Population Alan Tudge said on Friday that more than 800,000 people in Australia use WeChat.
“It has become an important communication tool for many people,” he said. “[Banning it] is not in our plan.”
In the lead-up to the November election, the US has begun putting up its own Great Firewall as it pursues China over Hong Kong, the South China Sea, allegations of espionage on US soil and intellectual property theft.
The White House calls its ally-friendly version of the internet the “clean network” purged from “un-trusted” Chinese apps.
“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP censorship,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.
The Chinese Communist Party is the global censorship master. US social media giants Facebook, Google and YouTube are all already banned in China, the world’s second largest economy. Its own authoritarian efficiency will make it difficult to find an app or piece of US technology that it can ban in retaliation.
Perhaps wary of another strike, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been attempting to cool diplomatic tensions in recent days.
“The development of China and of the US is not a zero sum game, and we should not reject each other,” he said on Thursday. “What we should do is to draw on each other’s strength to achieve common development.”
But much of the US’s recent action and rhetoric shows it appears determined to engineer irreversible changes in America’s relationship with China ahead of November’s poll.
It is difficult to conceive how presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden, who has repeatedly emphasised he would be tough on China, would suddenly reverse the executive orders if he took office.
The internet, once regarded as the driving force behind the democratisation of information, is becoming Balkanised. Just as the world’s politics is becoming more divided, so are the platforms being used to deliver its messages.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.