Tenzin Dorjee is a senior researcher at Tibet Action Institute and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.
App bans in general belong to the censorship arsenal of illiberal regimes, but WeChat is one of a kind, and banning it might eventually strengthen the liberal world order.
Critics of the ban say WeChat is “China’s bridge to the world” and a “lifeline” for the Chinese diaspora. But these metaphors obscure the app’s true nature. They ignore concerns about political liberty and human security that are central to the debate that has long surrounded this controversial app.
WeChat is not a bridge — it’s a closed system that keeps its 1.2 billion users in a parallel universe where they are free to interact as long as they don’t cross the lines. This super app runs on a technology of tyranny that combines algorithms of surveillance, repression and distraction to depoliticize the individual and demobilize the collective. Nor is WeChat simply a “lifeline” for diaspora populations. The app is a rope that binds the diaspora to a command center in Beijing. This platform powers the apparatus of transnational repression that Beijing employs to silence its exiled dissidents, intimidate overseas activists and surveil protesters.
Between 2004 and 2012, when I worked as a Tibet rights campaigner in New York, we held regular protests at the Chinese consulate. The demonstrations routinely drew hundreds, sometimes thousands, of exiled Tibetans. But sometime between 2012 and 2015, as more and more Tibetans adopted WeChat to establish contact with their families in Tibet, they became susceptible to China’s long-distance relational repression, a coercive technique through which relatives are strategically harassed in the home country to silence a particular activist abroad.
I know several Tibetans who, once they started using WeChat, slowly disappeared from the street protests and went silent on social media. Among the newly silenced are former political prisoners. In Tibet, they defied the Chinese regime, risking imprisonment and torture. Today, living as free citizens in the United States or Europe, they dare not speak freely or attend protests, because their speech or action might land their relatives back home in trouble.
This web of transnational tyranny would not have such far-reaching precision and effectiveness without the surveillance infrastructure WeChat provides. The app connects the diaspora to the homeland, yes, but at the price of disconnecting them from their own voices. WeChat is the great silencer.
There is no denying that the ban on WeChat will temporarily inconvenience diaspora Chinese who rely on the app for family communications, social interactions and financial transactions. Two Chinese dissidents –– Yang Jianli and Times Wang –– have argued that the ban violates America’s liberal principle of openness, and ignores practical considerations, emphasizing that 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.”
What they seem to miss, however, is that the liberal order is best safeguarded not by the unilateral elevation of liberal principles but by the multilateral enforcement of liberal practices. Sure, openness is a foundation of the liberal order. But U.S. openness without Chinese reciprocity is not only unfair, it is unsustainable. Almost all major U.S.-owned platforms –– Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp –– have been banned in China for years. This lopsided relationship is precisely what produced the dominance of WeChat in the first place. By opposing Washington’s fight for reciprocity, the authors are protecting Beijing’s asymmetric advantage that led to the very absence of alternatives that they lament.
Exiled Uighurs, who occasionally use WeChat to check on the plight of their relatives in China’s concentration camps, stand to lose more than anyone. Yet they have overwhelmingly greeted the ban as a net positive, as have Tibetan activists and many Chinese dissidents. In their calculus, the temporary inconvenience of losing the app is worth the larger gains in their struggle for emancipation.
“We want communication that leads to liberty, not communication that keeps us in captivity,” Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, whose parents died after being sent to China’s detention camps, told me.
It is hard to escape from the long shadow WeChat casts over the social and private lives of diaspora communities, but a blanket ban might collectively emancipate us from this predicament. Instead of defending China’s technologies of repression in the name of free trade and openness, we should try to save the liberal system by pushing for reciprocity and symmetry in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. The long-term costs of tolerating WeChat are far greater than the temporary costs of banning it.
Times Wang and Yang Jianli: A WeChat ban will hurt ordinary citizens. There are better ways to hold China accountable.