was introduced in 2011, and quickly grew to become China’s dominant social-media app. It is now a ubiquitous communications tool, used by young and old alike. Virtually every Chinese person with a smartphone has a WeChat account, which they use to stay in touch with friends, family, and work colleagues, and to pay restaurant, utility, and grocery bills. Even the US Embassy in China has an official WeChat profile, where it broadcasts US government information and provides services to US citizens living and working in China.
Illustration: Binay Sinha
US residents with family members or friends in China are also likely to use WeChat when they communicate, and Chinese tourists in other countries rely on the app to stay connected while abroad. Similarly, many academics in the Chinese diaspora now use the service to collaborate with researchers in Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China (where it is used much more often than WhatsApp, Zoom, or Skype).
Banning WeChat outright will thus disrupt the lives of many US citizens and residents — probably on the order of one million people — who use the app regularly. Whether the move is worthwhile depends on if it serves some higher purpose effectively.
According to Trump’s order, WeChat is guilty of two offenses. First, it collects mobility data and the content of communications from US citizens, permanent residents, and visitors to the US from China, and potentially makes this information available to the Chinese government. So, a ban protects people’s privacy. Second, the Trump administration claims that disguised Chinese government entities are spreading disinformation on WeChat, in which case a ban would curtail Beijing’s ability to transmit propaganda.
Both these apparent benefits are illusory. The idea that a ban strengthens privacy rests on the assumption that WeChat users in the US are stupid or uninformed, and thus cannot weigh the costs and benefits on their own. The implication is that Uncle Sam needs to strip away the right to download and use the app in order to protect users from themselves. The irony is that the ban comes from a president who declines to adopt a mandatory face-mask requirement in public places during a viral pandemic, which would have saved American lives.
As for the claim about disinformation, there are two points to consider. First, given the Chinese state’s control of all media (online and off) within the country, WeChat is a relatively unimportant channel for the government’s message outreach.
Second, US-based users often share information with friends and family in China, who then may pass it along to other WeChat groups. That makes WeChat a crack in China’s Great Firewall. Even if a post is taken down by a WeChat censor, it is often reposted in some other form, and users regularly deploy creative wording and formatting in their messages to bypass the censoring algorithm. By banning WeChat in the US, Trump is closing an important opening in the firewall.
An alternative three-pronged policy would be superior to a ban. First, the president could order all US government agencies and employees not to use WeChat, with the US embassy in China being the exception. Second, the US government could mandate that Apple, Google, and other US app vendors issue a pop-up warning to anyone downloading WeChat. It could state that, “The US government determines that this app may be used to track your movement and the content of your communication and that this data could be available to the Chinese government. Some advertisements on WeChat may come from the Chinese government.”
Third, the US could order Tencent
to stop sending push notifications or advertisements to any users whose accounts are registered with a US phone number, or who are travelling in the US. This is easy to do technically, and Tencent
would have an interest in complying with such a directive.
Because the US commerce secretary must still define the prohibited “transactions” mentioned in the order, there is hope that the scope of the policy will be narrow enough to avoid some of the counterproductive consequences. But the three-pronged alternative approach would be even better.
The writer, a former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, is professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
©2020 Project Syndicate
Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information and commentary on developments that are of interest to you and have wider political and economic implications for the country and the world. Your encouragement and constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve and commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed and updated with credible news, authoritative views and incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.
We, however, have a request.
As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better and more relevant content. We believe in free, fair and credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.
Support quality journalism and subscribe to Business Standard.