Neither of us can be described as sympathizers of the Chinese Communist Party. One of us, Yang Jianli, was a survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The other, Times Wang, is the son of one of China’s most prominent political prisoners, Wang Bingzhang.
Nor can we be said to be naive about WeChat. Indeed, we probably know better than the government the nature and reality of how WeChat’s practices undermine free speech in the United States. The cases we’ve uncovered, all involving ethnically Chinese people, both citizens and non-citizens, share one thing in common: The users made postings perceived as critical of the Chinese government. The consequences have included the blocking and deletion of accounts, resulting in the erasure of cherished photos and memories, as well as the distressing inability to communicate with family members in China in the middle of a pandemic.
They’ve also included business opportunities lost. WeChat encourages its users to do business over its platform, and indeed, countless conversations about potential transactions are held on WeChat daily. But we’ve heard from people who were in the middle of discussing deals potentially worth thousands or even millions of dollars when they decided to have the temerity to say something vaguely critical of the Chinese government. Suddenly, their accounts were blocked, and they lost business as a result.
In at least one case, they also include harrowing consequences for family members back in China. One user who has been in the United States since 2017, and who hasn’t returned to China since, posted critical comments about the Chinese government from the United States. Then, in late 2019, his family in China messaged him to ask whether he’d been posting such comments on WeChat, because security agents had visited their home and taken pictures.
And yet, we have deep concerns that the administration’s announcement might lead to policies that go too far. Any measures that resemble China’s Great Firewall would be anathema to the First Amendment, and thus unconstitutional. But even lesser policies might undermine the government’s stated interest in “engaging and empowering” ordinary Chinese people. The reality is, for all our misgivings about WeChat, there is no reasonable alternative that can sustain the same level of grass-roots communication flows between people in China and people outside of it. Thus, the net effect of a “ban” would be to reduce such communications, which benefits only those who prefer ignorance to knowledge.
Given all this, we hope that whatever the administration does next, it considers the following.
First, the administration has an array of legal options that we, as private parties, don’t have, including, for example, a Federal Trade Commission investigation and lawsuit. If, with our relatively puny resources, we can put together enough facts to bring a lawsuit in less than a year, surely the federal government could do so even more quickly.
Second, we agree that using WeChat on official devices poses a potential security risk, and neither of us has WeChat on our own devices. Thus, policies tailored to address that security risk in official settings seem appropriate.
Third, the ultimate goal should be to undermine censorship and enhance transparency and freedom of expression — not to simply mirror the Chinese government’s behavior, unbound by any principle other than an eye for an eye. Indeed, the ultimate goal (which should be woven into all aspects of the government’s China policy, and not just as it relates to WeChat) should be to tear down the Great Firewall someday and hopefully someday soon.
The world is watching these events unfold with bated breath, including in China, where lamentations about the possibility of the United States copying China’s policies are not uncommon. If the U.S. government truly cares about free speech, about its ethnically Chinese citizens and, as it claims, about people living in China, it would do well to keep such concerns in mind.
Meanwhile, our private efforts to hold WeChat accountable are proceeding apace, and if the government is interested in learning about our efforts, our law firm and nonprofit are both in D.C., and we are just down the street.