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US federal judge blocks Trump WeChat ban

A ban on using the Chinese app WeChat in the US, which was due to come into force on September 20, has been temporarily halted by a federal judge on the grounds that it violates First Amendment rights.

wechatWeChat is used by Chinese students and recruiters in the US. Photo: Tencent

Millions of people use WeChat in the US

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 Trump administration initially announced the ban in August along with Beijing-based ByteDance’s TikTok.

The US Department of Commerce said that it was intended to “combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the ban a “runs counter to the WTO principles of openness, fairness, transparency and non-discrimination” and called for “an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for all market entities investing and operating in the US”.

“[The ban] runs counter to the WTO principles of openness, fairness, transparency and non-discrimination”

However, he failed to mention that TikTok is not available in China itself, where ByteDance instead offers a separate app called Douyin.

The plaintiffs currently fighting the case against the ban are the US WeChat Users Alliance. They argue that WeChat is “irreplaceable” and that other apps “cannot practically replace WeChat because they lack the cultural relevance”.

Although it is often referred to as a messaging app, WeChat also serves as a popular payment method in shops and can be used for purchasing plane tickets, making reservations, paying utility bills, reading the news, ordering taxis and more.

The US government’s concerns about the app are however not entirely without merit. For many, the chief issue is whether data stored in Mainland China could be passed to authorities, which companies are required to do if asked.

A draft security law published in July this year further proposed regulations that would also include data from foreign organisations and persons that “engage in data activities that harm the national security, the public interest, or the lawful interests of citizens or organisations”.

For student recruiters and others however it poses a challenge as all the major social media apps common in most countries are banned in China and WeChat has no real competitors, meaning there are few other alternatives for communicating with students and their families.

“Our understanding is that the ban involved e-commerce and not the messaging functionality of WeChat. The court ruling aside, we believe we would have been okay,” Craig Pines, CEO at Amerigo Education, told The PIE News.

“It certainly would be problematic for us if messaging were also banned as it’s our primary communication platform for Chinese students and parents. We have been looking at alternatives and the options are quite limited. We would probably need to utilise email as the primary vehicle, which certainly isn’t ideal.”

The US is not the only country purging its play stores of Chinese products. In July, India banned 58 Chinese apps, including WeChat and Tiktok, as well as several QQ apps, Baidu maps and Baidu translate.

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