It remains possible that Microsoft will buy TikTok, which would keep it functioning. There is no talk of a comparable WeChat spinoff from parent company Tencent, which means that the immensely popular super-app is more likely to suffer some form of restriction in this country than TikTok. What exactly that restriction would be, however, is unclear. Mr. Trump’s order prohibits “transactions” related to WeChat but doesn’t bother to define the term. The order also mentions Tencent rather than WeChat alone, a decision that (maybe accidentally) threatens to sweep in all sorts of gaming products owned by the firm. This choice also reveals the administration’s real objective: striking a broad blow against President Xi Jinping’s government, rather than protecting national security.
That isn’t to say that national security concerns do not exist. Indeed, there is more robust evidence to support the claim that China harnesses WeChat to further its information manipulation and mass surveillance operations than there is to support similar claims about TikTok. The Citizen Lab this spring published an alarming exposé revealing that even WeChat users with accounts outside China are mined for data to train censorship algorithms; expatriates during the pandemic received requests from friends and family, presumably coerced by authorities, exhorting them to head back home after they shared articles that criticized the nation’s coronavirus response. Whereas TikTok transfixes untold young Americans, WeChat in the United States primarily attracts Chinese Americans for whom the service is an essential channel for reaching relatives in China.
It should be unacceptable for the Chinese government to ensnare even those who have traveled across the ocean in its cross-border web of authoritarianism. Those who come to the United States to study can live here without really living here at all: unable, because of control imposed from afar, to access a different and more democratic view of the world and then to decide for themselves what they believe. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google are prevented from comparably bringing American-grown values to the Chinese market.
But as with TikTok, the way to answer security and censorship concerns is to call out specific violations and demand (or devise) an end to them. This will not be easy; but it is a better goal than simply making speech more difficult in the land of the free rather than less.