In August, the Trump administration released two executive orders prohibiting transactions with ByteDance and Tencent relating to their apps TikTok and 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 US Department of Commerce said that the ban was intended to “combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”.
“Recruiters and schools should keep their eye on Chinese social media because most Western social platforms are blocked”
However, the orders were almost immediately blocked by district court judges.
“Despite the somewhat ominous sound of these orders, it is important for educational institutions and companies to remember that the executive orders were written with the express concern about the security of the personal data of American citizens and possible risks to having large numbers of Americans communicate over a Chinese platform,” the white paper noted.
“In other words, Tencent and Bytedance’s international apps that are used in the US, Wechat and TikTok, are the chief cause of concern, not American organisations marketing their products or programs on a Chinese platform with largely Chinese users.”
The white paper highlighted that while the vague language of the orders had caused a lot of confusion, the issue was further exacerbated by a lack of clarity over which apps are actually being targeted.
Both Tencent and Byetdance offer two versions of TikTok and Wechat, one for the Chinese market – where they are known as Douyin and Weixin – and another for the international market.
“It is unclear if the rationale is intended to apply only to WeChat or to both WeChat and Weixin,” the paper added.
“A similar logic applies for Douyin and TikTok, with the exception that Douyin is the Chinese cousin of TikTok and does not share a common backend; you cannot actually access TikTok from inside China.”
According to the paper, 70% of students rely on local internet searches and social media for information about studying overseas, with 56% reporting that online information was one of the top three ways they learned about studying overseas.
However due to internet restrictions and bans on most of the world’s most popular apps like Instagram and Facebook, China has developed something of its own internet ecosystem, meaning institutions need to communicate with students through local platforms.
Another survey in 2019 of around 3,000 students in tier two and three cities also found that 70% of students search for information about overseas colleges in Chinese rather than English.
“Recruiters and schools should keep their eye on Chinese social media because most Western social platforms are blocked and because there’s less of a clear division between search engines and social platforms,” said one of the report’s authors, Sunrise COO David Weeks.
“What’s on Chinese social media can represent a significant proportion of the information about schools that parents will see”
“That means that what’s on Chinese social media can represent a significant proportion of the information about schools that Chinese students and parents will see when they research and discover what universities and programs to apply to,” he continued.
“Without an official voice on Chinese social media, the information about a school on the Chinese internet is often much weaker, since that information is often provided by volunteer contributors on Q&A platforms or interested parties like agents.”
Weeks further suggested that Weibo is the easiest place for institutions to get started on establishing an active presence on Chinese social media, along with Toutiao and Douyin.