US federal judge blocks ban of Chinese app WeChat

Commonly used by Chinese international students to stay in touch with friends and family back home, and one of the main ways international student recruiters communicate with Chinese students, the Trump administration initially announced the ban in August along with Beijing-based ByteDance’s TikTok.

The US Department of Commerce said that it was intended to “combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the ban a “runs counter to the WTO principles of openness, fairness, transparency and non-discrimination” and called for “an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for all market entities investing and operating in the US”.

“[The ban] runs counter to the WTO principles of openness, fairness, transparency and non-discrimination”

However, he failed to mention that TikTok is not available in China itself, where ByteDance instead offers a separate app called Douyin.

The plaintiffs currently fighting the case against the ban are the US WeChat Users Alliance. They argue that WeChat is “irreplaceable” and that other apps “cannot practically replace WeChat because they lack the cultural relevance”.

Although it is often referred to as a messaging app, WeChat also serves as a popular payment method in shops and can be used for purchasing plane tickets, making reservations, paying utility bills, reading the news, ordering taxis and more.

The US government’s concerns about the app are however not entirely without merit. For many, the chief issue is whether data stored in Mainland China could be passed to authorities, which companies are required to do if asked.

A draft security law published in July this year further proposed regulations that would also include data from foreign organisations and persons that “engage in data activities that harm the national security, the public interest, or the lawful interests of citizens or organisations”.

It’s not exactly clear how the ban will impact users if it eventually comes into place. It is believed that for those who have already downloaded the app, WeChat would continue to work but its financial services and some other features would not function. It would also likely be slower and without updates eventually become useless.

For student recruiters however it poses a challenge as all the major social media apps common in most countries are banned in China and WeChat has no real competitors, meaning recruiters may need to use a VPN to stay in touch with students.

The US is not the only country purging its play stores of Chinese products. In July, India banned 58 Chinese apps, including WeChat and Tiktok, as well as several QQ apps, Baidu maps and Baidu translate.

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