WeChat bleg

The administration has issued an executive order banning WeChat. Or at least we are told that it bans WeChat. But how would we know this? The order is so vague that literally no one knows what it means. Heck, the order is directed at a company that does not even exist!

The executive order appeared to have been drafted hastily: the company it names as a target for the ban, Tencent Holdings Ltd, Shenzhen, China does not exist. 

WeChat is a huge deal for the Chinese community in America, and not surprisingly this group is highly suspicious of the claim that this is about national security. I’m actually willing to believe that some US government officials are motivated by genuine national security worries (misguided in my view), but how can you blame people for conspiracy theories when the US president is literally trying to extort money from TikTok.

So all you tech experts that lecture me on not knowing anything about the field, please tell me whether Americans will be banned from using WeChat, or just banned from future downloads of the WeChat app. Also tell me whether the ban applies to personal communication on WeChat or just financial transactions. If there is a distinction, tell me why the distinction is being made. Also tell me whether Americans working in China will continue to be able to use WeChat. Also tell me whether US firms will continue to be able to supply Tencent. Also tell me whether the order applies to online gaming. Also tell me whether Apple will continue to be allowed to provide WeChat in its app store. (If not, there goes their China market.)

And finally, please tell me why the clown show in DC released this executive order before first thinking through what they are trying to do.

PS. The FT says:

One thing it cannot do is ban people from using WeChat; under the law which Mr Trump is invoking, the administration cannot block any personal communications which do not involve financial transactions.

Fine, but if you read the executive order the motivation is precisely that, we need to stop personal communication on WeChat:

Like TikTok, WeChat automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users.  This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.  In addition, the application captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.  For example, in March 2019, a researcher reportedly discovered a Chinese database containing billions of WeChat messages sent from users in not only China but also the United States, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia.

What am I missing?



22 Responses to “WeChat bleg”

  1. Gravatar of Skeptical Skeptical
    8. August 2020 at 14:05

    You’re not missing anything, it’s incoherent to the extreme.

    Millions of us use WeChat to talk to relatives on the mainland. It’s also an open joke that anything we say on WeChat is entered into a database and ‘can and will be used against’ anyone who becomes a target. The Chinese American community (and the Chinese community) isn’t stupid and self censors. Not much to be gained by the CCP by reading a happy New Years message to Grandma

    How does it end? Honestly who tf knows?

  2. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    8. August 2020 at 14:20

    It seems the most realistic way that this ban could work would be if it requires Google and Apple to remove Wechat from their app stores around the world and thus prevent anyone on a Google or Apple phone from using it or at least updating it.

    A ban on individuals using Wechat, even for advertising, seems obviously unconstitutional under the First Amendment, as that is directly banning speech. For that matter, it seems obviously unconstitutional for the government to force Google or Apple to stop carrying Wechat. The Supreme Court has held that bans on distributing video games are unconstitutional because they are expressive in nature, and that seems analogous to Wechat. However, I think the most realistic risk is that Google and Apple might not want to be a test case. In that case, Google and Apple simply comply with the government’s orders to remove Wechat and never challenge it. I’m not sure anyone else would have standing to challenge the Wechat ban: Tencent itself is not a US citizen and could maybe challenge the Wechat ban in the US, but the Constitution gives no rights to foreign citizens on foreign soil. So ironically, the US government is more able to censor speech outside the US than inside (this is also why “the US government is good because the US is so free” is a disingenuous argument: US citizens enjoy some protections from our government but foreign citizens do not). And users probably wouldn’t be able to challenge the ban, because arguably they weren’t required to do anything: only the Apple and Google platforms were.

    These sanctions have changed my mind on tech monopolies. The real danger of tech monopolies is not that the tech companies themselves do anything bad (as they are checked by both market competition and antitrust laws), but that the government, which is immune to both market competition and antitrust laws, could use its control over those monopolies to violate our constitutional rights.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. August 2020 at 15:06

    Thanks Skeptical and Mark, It’s every bit as screwed up as I assumed.

  4. Gravatar of Peter Peter
    8. August 2020 at 15:37

    I’m not defending it nor implying there is a disagreement here but let’s not pretend it’s any less rational that a travel ban to Cuba or making it illegal to buy rugs directly from Iran. I don’t recall anybody, even you Scott, complaining when Trump banned Kaspersky a couple years ago but yeah I get it, China is magical. Trump here isn’t forging any new ground.

  5. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    8. August 2020 at 16:51

    Mark, you wrote:

    “These sanctions have changed my mind on tech monopolies. The real danger of tech monopolies is not that the tech companies themselves do anything bad (as they are checked by both market competition and antitrust laws), but that the government, which is immune to both market competition and antitrust laws, could use its control over those monopolies to violate our constitutional rights.”

    I agree that the government is more dangerous than private monopolies, but these aren’t mutually exclusive dangers. Google has a real monopoly on general search. YouTube also has quite a monopoly as a user-generated video site. Facebook has a monopoly as a general social network. Advertising costs have skyrocketed on these platforms, which means there should at least be investigations to determine if more competition would increase value for advertisers, and ultimately, consumers.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. August 2020 at 18:10

    Peter, I’ve criticized the Cuba travel ban many times, and also Trump’s policy on Iran.

    You said:

    “I don’t recall . . . ”

    Why should any of us care about what you recall?

  7. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    8. August 2020 at 18:28

    Peter, for the first time ever the Cuba travel ban makes sense. So in the Caribbean tourism market people are always looking for the “new new” and so it is a zero sum game. Why does this matter? Because Puerto Rico actually has an underfunded tourism industry and one way it can recover Hurricane Maria is for it to attract more investment for its tourism sector…opening up Cuba would definitely harm Puerto Rico and it could also harm tourism in continental America when it is hurting the most. So the Caribbean islands that have been America’s allies deserve to be rewarded when people start traveling again.

  8. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    8. August 2020 at 18:58

    By the way here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Facebook and Instagram removed speech supporting Iranian general Soleimani in order to comply with US sanctions—even in Iran itself: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/10/tech/instagram-iran-soleimani-posts/index.html. They specifically said they were removing the speech to comply with US sanctions. It seems that it would violate freedom of speech to prohibit statements supporting Soleimani, and it’s unclear whether US sanctions law could constitutionally ban such statements, but Facebook and Instagram went ahead and did so rather than challenge US sanctions.

    The fact that US private media companies willingly comply with these sanctions is a new and really quite terrifying way for the government to suppress political speech without First Amendment scrutiny. The users have no standing to challenge US government censorship, especially if they are foreign, if the tech companies aren’t willing to challenge it.

  9. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    8. August 2020 at 19:03

    When I read about WeChat being banned in the US, I also worried about how could people in the US communicate with residents in China. I use WeChat sometimes, but much more often I use LINE and Skype (though not to communicate with mainland China).

    So I thought, “Well maybe people can switch to LINE, and keep up vital ties.”

    Upon checking:

    “The majority of Western social networks are blocked in China, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and many others. … Other instant messaging apps like FB Messenger, LINE, Telegram, or Viber are also blocked in China. The only exceptions are the Chinese apps WeChat or Weixin.”


    OK, so Beijing/CCP already blocked LINE, Skype and everything besides WeChat and Weixin in China.

    I am still able, by e-mail, to send and receive messages to a resident in Beijing. I have also successfully used Linked In to communicate with a resident of Beijing.

    What was reason for Beijing/CCP for banning so many social networks in mainland China?

    Going forward, I hope ordinary people can still use e-mail and Linked In to keep up ties with residents of mainland China. For low-cost voice communications perhaps pre-paid calling cards and old-fashioned telephone calls will be useful.

    I doubt we will see Beijing/CCP allow LINE to operate inside China. That would solve the problem too.


  10. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    8. August 2020 at 19:13

    Ben, what evidence is there that the US would allow social media companies to operate in China even if China did? US media company Zoom is now severely limiting access to Chinese users and not allowing Chinese individuals to make free meetings, apparently under US pressure: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/03/zoom-to-halt-direct-sales-of-services-to-users-in-china.html. See also the link in my previous post about Facebook and Instagram removing Iranian accounts and censoring content posted in Iran in response to US sanctions after the killing of General Soleimani. Or Pompeo saying that US apps should not list on Huawei’s store, even if China allows them to be sold on Huawei’s store. The US government is not trying to make China more open; to the contrary, it appears to want to turn China into another Iran or North Korea. The US is the side building the walls in this conflict. Hopefully China is big enough to resist.

  11. Gravatar of Anonymous Anonymous
    8. August 2020 at 19:39

    “The US is the side building the walls in this conflict.”

    This seems like a bad joke. Sure the U.S. is building walls now, but China is already a fortress. Frankly I think Congress (not Trump) should pass a law of tit-for-tat- any Chinese restriction on U.S. firms shall likewise apply to Chinese firms in the U.S.

  12. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    8. August 2020 at 19:42

    Most experts seem to agree that these companies should not operate in democracies as long as they are subject to the access of the, according to Scott, fascist CCP.

    If the concerns should be well-founded that Trump’s orders are not thought out and not fully developed and do not comply with the rule of law and are even illegal, then critics of the restrictions should be pleased because it offers sympathies in certain media outlets and also legal opportunities for these companies to attack.

    Or in other words: These companies are dust in the US anyway, unless the critics are right and Trump unintentionally helped these companies by botching the implementation. We’ll see about that.

    I suspect Trump is now taking action against these companies because, according to US intelligence, China is trying to manipulate the outcome of the US elections. I’ll bet the critics are as outraged about this as they are about the Russian manipulation attempts. Otherwise they’d be massive hypocrites, which of course no one can imagine.

  13. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    8. August 2020 at 20:04

    Christian, yes, “malice tempered by incompetence” is a common description of the Trump administration. And who are these “experts” you reference? The national security “experts” are an insular blob that got us into the Iraq War. Their incentives are strongly to create international conflicts so that their “expertise” will be needed. As the saying goes, war is the health of the state.

    Regarding Chinese “manipulation,” please read the actual statement from the intelligence agencies: https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2139-statement-by-ncsc-director-william-evanina-election-threat-update-for-the-american-public. It says: “Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues. For example, it has harshly criticized the Administration’s statements and actions on Hong Kong, TikTok, the legal status of the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market. Beijing recognizes that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race.” So according to our intelligence agencies, China’s election interference consists of… public criticism of the Trump Administration. Such public criticism of the Trump administration by a foreigner must never be allowed, of course, they should just accept the Trump administration destroying their life’s work with a “please sir can I have another.” What a joke.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. August 2020 at 21:32

    Christian, So public statements critical of the US policy are now “election interference”? Stick to topics you know something about.

  15. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    9. August 2020 at 02:35

    Mark–Perhaps you are right, the US would ban LINE, Skype and dozens of other social-media platforms if they were popular in mainland China.

    So far the US has not banned LINE, Skype and other social media platforms from operating simultaneously in China and the US, but Beijing/CCP has.

    Believe me, I am skeptical of US foreign, trade and military policies, which generally serve globalist-multinationalist interests. Hence, the US military as a global guard service for multinationals.

    The Trump foreign and trade policy is fascinating, as it has issued the DC-globalist narrative, it is too bad it is Trump doing this as he is the worst spokesman for even his good ideas.

    But relax. It looks like Biden and Susan Rice will soon be steering US foreign-trade policy back into the hands of Disney, Apple, the NBA, and BlackRock.

    By the way, if you are living in China and plan to dissent, please change your mind. Keep very, very quiet.

  16. Gravatar of Andrew Swift Andrew Swift
    9. August 2020 at 03:41


    It’s a long, very good article about why it might be a problem that TikTok and similar programs are accessible to the Chinese government.

    Briefly: the algorithms that decide what gets boosted is opaque, the Chinese government has a manifest interest in manipulating American election outcomes.

    The combination means that without anyone being able to know for sure, we are vulnerable to social media distortion.

    The article is much more in depth… I haven’t done it justice at all.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. August 2020 at 09:21

    Andrew, Yes, I read the article, twice. But I’m not convinced. He makes a big deal about the Tulsa event, which seems unimportant to me. It’s all speculation.

    I’m not saying there are no good arguments for banning TikTok, but I have not seen one presented in the media. And as for WeChat, it’s not even clear what we are trying to accomplish.

  18. Gravatar of Greg Greg
    9. August 2020 at 11:00

    Google had offered search service in China for a number of years before it withdrew from it because it does not want to comply with China’s filtering/censoring policy. Microsoft’s Bing still operates in China because MSFT does comply with it. Facebook was blocked because it refused to ban the accounts connected to Urghur terrorists. TikTok complies with all US laws and policies, yet it is being forced to close or sell to US companies in 45 days. And the US wants to withhold a large percentage of the transaction.

    You tell me if these are equivalent.

    Now, I understand some of you are anti-China/anti-CCP/anti-Chinese/anti-Chinese-becoming-strong, but if you want to do business in other countries, at least try to comply with local laws and policies, not to impose your ideologies or systems on other countries or people. Can we at least agree on that?

  19. Gravatar of LC LC
    9. August 2020 at 11:00

    There are several aspects of this that are not well documented in conventional media coverage:

    1. Wechat in US is more free than Wechat in China. The Chinese diaspora in US post more material that express wide variety of points seldom seen in China. Many of the dissenting views on Hong Kong are expressed in Wechat US and can be filtered back to China. In fact, Donald Trump campaign has one of the strongest Wechat presences. (There are periodic pronouncements that same to come from US government that state all Chinese visitors are going to be monitored by FBI – so no illegal Communist activities – and votes for Biden will be tracked as abiding Communists.)
    2. Wechat is more than a messaging service. It covers vast array of financial transactions (i.e. WeChat Pay), online E Commerce, advertising etc. As Adam Minter pointed out, tourism, especially tourism to US potentially will be hit hard.
    3. By emphasizing that Wechat records could be used by Chinese government, the US Security Apparatus inadvertently legitimizes Chinese censorship and ban on Western products. In fact, US is not viewed as People’s Republic of America as it’s being viewed as equivalent to China.
    It’s not a good position to be in as America prides itself on being open, free and strong, an enduring symbol of mankind’s freedom from fear.

  20. Gravatar of LC LC
    9. August 2020 at 11:16

    Sorry for couple of typos in my haste on previous comment.

    On point 1, it should be: There are periodic pronouncements that seem to come from US government.

    On point 3, it should be: In fact, US is now viewed as People’s Republic of America.

    One running joke amongst Chinese netizens earlier was calling US Army “Global Liberation Army” after wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, so now as US NATSec becomes more aggressive on cracking down Chinese tech, it’s now the People’s Republic of America.

  21. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    9. August 2020 at 12:43

    Scott and Mark,

    yes you are right, I fully admit my mistake.

    Serious media outlets gave the impression that CCP China does intervene, similar to Russia, and I made the mistake of simply trusting the information instead of looking for the original sources.

    I assume my CCP scepticism also played a role. There’s a certain bias, and the information came in handy, so there’s a tendency to rather trust the information.

  22. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    9. August 2020 at 20:25

    OT, but Sumner is an experienced China observer and commentator.

    Hong Kong Publisher Jimmy Lai Is Arrested Under National Security Law—NY Times

    “The pro-democracy figure is the most high-profile figure detained under the sweeping law imposed by Beijing on the semiautonomous territory.”


    I think the lead paragraph is in error. How about “the formerly semiautonomous territory.”

    Good luck everybody. How about that NBA (No Ball Association)! Great action! Thrilling play!

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