On September 18, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order to ban Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat. The next day, my mother called me and told me my beloved grandfather, who lives in Beijing, China, had a recurrence of colon cancer. Immediately my heart dropped to the floor, imagining that I only had 60 days to chat with my grandfather in what is likely his final months. Without WeChat, how were we going to talk?
As Trump escalates his rhetoric against China, much of the media has focused on Trump’s ban on TikTok, the video-creation app popular among teens. But less attention has been paid to WeChat, an app little known to most Americans, but which acts as the lifeblood of the internet for Chinese citizens as well as Chinese living overseas. Because so many foreign websites are banned in China, WeChat functions as Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, Venmo, bill pay, and online banking all rolled into one app.
Trump’s ban, which would have prevented new downloads on US app stores as well as overseas payments between users, would have resulted immediately in a loss of functionality of WeChat. Although the ban has been temporarily blocked, my family is waiting anxiously for the day that our communications are cut off. There’s no immediate alternative to WeChat because so many communication apps are blocked for Chinese users by the Chinese government.
The day after Trump’s executive order, US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler of Northern California issued a preliminary injunction on the ban, asserting that it violated First Amendment rights. As of now, the fate of WeChat — and TikTok — in America is uncertain. But one thing is for sure: If Trump’s WeChat ban is put into effect, which he is still threatening to do, Chinese Americans will be cut off from their families back home during an already stressful worldwide pandemic.
I use WeChat every day. My entire extended family, with the exception of my mother and sister, live in Mainland China. I’m part of multiple big 朋友群 (messaging groups) — this is analogous to a non-Chinese family’s iMessage — with different members of my family, from my grandparents to my most distant cousins. I receive messages constantly, from trivial little updates, like my aunt displaying her rations — the many bags of rice and gallons of oil she received that day from her company (a common practice in China) — my grandparents’ schedules of their daily walks, or even just pictures of the family cat. Because of the time difference, I often wake up to a barrage of messages, such as my grandparents and uncle discussing when he will pick the grandparents up from their Beijing apartment. It makes my family, who mostly live some 7,000 miles away from my apartment in Brooklyn, feel like we live together in the same house.
I also use WeChat to call my grandparents. I’m notified of when my mother starts a group call for our messaging group, and if I want to, I can easily join and talk to all of them at once. It’s nice being able to see their faces on my small iPhone screen, even if my grandmother puts her phone camera right under her nostrils. When I wrote an article about affirmative action in Chinese that was published on WeChat, I also posted it on my WeChat Stories to share with my family and Chinese friends. But my absolute favorite thing about WeChat is when I send any message after 9 pm, and my grandmother responds with a sticker of flowers with the phrase “早点睡觉”— “go to sleep earlier.”
I didn’t always have such a close relationship with my relatives. I was born in the United States to my Chinese mother and father. My parents immigrated here in the early ’90s as students and medical refugees, and we were the only family members who lived in the United States. I was raised for the first two years of my life in Beijing by my grandparents as a satellite baby. When I eventually went back to the United States, I barely saw the people who helped raise me.
I was always jealous of the experiences with family that my non-immigrant classmates would casually mention. During Christmas and New Year’s, other children visited their relatives while I would sit at home with my mother and father. When our school would tell us students to sell wrapping paper and magazine subscriptions to family members for a fundraiser, I felt totally left out. I was raised without knowing what it was like to have family close by, and I often felt like I barely knew my Chinese family. We didn’t call often because it was expensive — before WeChat was founded in 2011, my parents would spend hours researching the cheapest long-distance phone plan before dialing into my grandmother’s home phone in China.
WeChat has helped close that distance. I’m able to talk to my grandparents face to face virtually, and I got to know my third cousins in rural Hubei. Because I made a Chinese bank account and linked it to my WeChat account, my relatives have no excuse for not sending me digital red envelopes of money during Chinese New Year. WeChat has also been essential during the Covid-19 pandemic. I had to cancel my trip to Wuhan for Chinese New Year, which would have been my first time spending such an important holiday with relatives in China. When I read the news about how dire it was in Wuhan, I was able to get in touch on WeChat with my relatives there who confirmed that they had not been infected. It was a huge relief.
Beyond communication with family overseas, there are other reasons why WeChat is essential for members of the Chinese diaspora. WeChat has a translation function, including a speech to text translation function, which helps elderly and low-English-proficiency Chinese live and function in English-speaking communities. My friends who teach English to Chinese people on Zoom rely on WeChat’s payment function for their weekly salary. My mother and other Chinese Americans have formed WeChat mutual aid groups, helping migrant Chinese workers who are infected with Covid-19 get medicine and shelter. In addition, there are groups of Chinese Americans who are actively writing articles to other Chinese Americans on WeChat through initiatives like the WeChat Project, as a way to organize Chinese Americans to vote and support Black Lives Matter.
I understand that Chinese-owned apps like WeChat come with privacy concerns because of government monitoring. I have concerns, too. I notice if I try to send a meme with Xi Jinping’s face over WeChat it “mysteriously” does not get sent to the receiver, and I know that my metadata — the call length, the location of the user — and the content I talk about is being monitored and saved.
Chinese people are all too aware we are being watched, but we have no choice. The WeChat app is all-encompassing and is impossible to substitute — most other messaging apps including WhatsApp and Line are banned by the Great Firewall, and Chinese-branded smartphones like Huawei are still more popular and less expensive for the average Chinese than the American Apple iPhones.
I also understand that the Trump administration is using its ban as a ploy to ease data concerns of Chinese apps. But I didn’t ask to be born to a family that lives under an authoritarian regime with incredibly limited access to Western, English-speaking media. That is the reality of Chinese Americans whose loved ones live in China. We’re not spies using WeChat to steal government secrets; we’re ordinary people trying to stay in touch with our families abroad.
The modern transnational family has been closer than ever because of technology, but Sinophobia and escalating political tensions will drive my family apart in ways we never wanted to be and never asked to be. I’m now worried about not being able to communicate with my family, especially as my grandfather could be in his last few months. My relationship with my him, once so distant, has strengthened over the years, in large part because of WeChat. He loves to hear what I am writing about or the books I am reading, and we spent hours on WeChat talking about Daoism for a high school World History assignment. After my mother told me my grandfather’s cancer had recurred, I spent every call, every message we sent to each other, wondering if that was the last time we would speak. The pandemic has only made it worse — as a US citizen, I am unable to travel to China to see him.
Anticipatory grief is the grief that occurs before a loved one’s death rather than after. It’s an “in-between” emotional space that can lead to a roller coaster of emotions, from guilt to anger. But crucially, it may be a step toward closure that people who lose loved ones suddenly do not have. With Trump’s executive order to ban WeChat, a ban that looms over my head as my family comes to terms with my grandfather’s diagnosis, I wonder if I’ll be able to get the closure, however little, that I need.
I — and all other Chinese Americans — am put into the impossible position of weighing between country and family, between data privacy concerns and the desire to talk to the people who raised me. I’m an American, but I’m willing to take the data privacy risk to call my grandparents, who I see in person perhaps once every three years.
Wouldn’t you do that, too?
Rita Wenxin Wang is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is passionate about Asian American diaspora and leftist politics.