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TikTok Is Bad, but WeChat Is Worse


WeChat

is the most popular communications platform in the world for Chinese speakers. It’s also a preferred vehicle for China’s Communist Party to steal data, censor, propagandize and spread disinformation in the U.S., where the app has an average of 19 million daily users. Congress banned the use of TikTok on government devices recently, and the Biden administration is reportedly seeking to go further by, for instance, limiting access to user data to mitigate the app’s dangers. Given the zeal to address threats emanating from a Chinese app, why is WeChat being ignored?

First developed by Tencent in 2011, WeChat is China’s “app for everything.” A billion people use it for texting, calling, video conferencing, playing videogames, shopping, paying bills, sending money, reading news and more. In the U.S., it is the most important source of news for Chinese students, immigrants and first-generation Chinese-Americans. But since it is a China-based technology product, WeChat is also a prominent part of Beijing’s mass-surveillance network. User activity is tracked, analyzed, censored and handed over to the government in line with Communist Party mandates. Algorithms are adjusted to promote the party’s narratives and demote or censor information that runs against them, making the app invaluable to the party’s efforts to spy on and influence Chinese communities world-wide. (Tencent said in 2020 that “user privacy and data security are core values” and that it was taking “seriously” reports that it surveilled foreign users.)

Lydia Liu,

an immigrant from China with a doctorate from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, knows this all too well. She started a WeChat public account in 2018 with the aim to tell “the truth of real American life to Chinese immigrants in the U.S.A. and world-wide,” as she told me. Ms. Liu worked countless hours over three years to build the account, eventually reaching more than 250,000 followers and millions of monthly views.

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But promoting a positive understanding of life in America—and its democracy and freedoms—challenges the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative about the U.S. In 2021 WeChat suspended Ms. Liu’s account, first for two weeks and then for six months. Posts that contradicted China’s stance on trade or Covid were repeatedly banned. Dozens of articles were disqualified before publication, and more than 40 were removed after publication. Comments were similarly censored. Meanwhile, Ms. Liu was repeatedly harassed. Trolls “repeatedly used the F-word, nicknamed me ‘stab people in the back’ and posted my name and

Facebook

information on many WeChat groups,” she said.

While users like Ms. Liu report that WeChat censors or demotes content that is positive toward the U.S., negative posts go viral daily. Chinese-speaking Americans see content suggesting that the U.S. treats Chinese people as second-class citizens, that whites always discriminate against Chinese people, the U.S. is a society plagued by gun violence, and that America’s streets were filled with dead bodies during the pandemic. The goal is to suppress Chinese and Chinese-Americans’ passion for politics and make them believe that the American political system is no better than China’s authoritarianism.

The Communist Party also uses the app to stifle the reach of Chinese-American political candidates who take a strong stance against it, such as

Allen Shen,

a Chinese-born U.S. Army veteran who ran as a Republican for a seat in the Minnesota House. Mr. Shen says he is unable to post on the app because of his political positions.

Lily Tang Williams,

who was a law professor in China, ran in a GOP primary for Congress in New Hampshire. She says she avoids anything that might be deemed political while on WeChat, out of concern for her relatives in China.

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The Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda and censorship efforts are supported by a group of state-backed internet commenters known as the 50 Cent Army, so named because that’s how much they were originally paid per post. (The figure is in Chinese yuan; the U.S. equivalent is about 15 cents.) Numbering anywhere from 500,000 to two million within China, with more overseas, this propaganda army creates articles or comments on social media in China and abroad that promote the party-state’s narratives while undermining anything that might challenge them. Many of the 50 Cent foot soldiers working on American social media are based in the U.S. and claim they have acquired U.S. passports or green cards. Sadly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other arms of the federal government lack the understanding and resources to constrain them.

The Trump administration tried to ban WeChat from U.S. app stores in 2020 on national-security grounds, but a federal judge blocked the ban. The Biden administration revoked President Trump’s executive order and kicked WeChat to the Commerce Department in 2021 for a review, as it did with TikTok. Many states—including Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Virginia—have recently banned WeChat and TikTok from state government devices, but there’s been no perceptible momentum to impose strictures on WeChat at the federal level. The Biden administration is likely much more concerned with TikTok because of its popularity with American youth. And what occurs on WeChat—arguably pernicious for American democracy—is hidden in a language few people in Washington, the media and think tanks understand.

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WeChat is likely to grow both in importance to its users and in influence over Chinese-language media in general. Its pervasiveness means that all other Chinese-language media must use it to reach readers. The Biden administration and Congress should therefore refocus on mitigating this growing threat.

Tencent has work to do. If it can’t ensure American standards of free expression and privacy on WeChat, and if its algorithms appear to continue promoting anti-American content while censoring posts critical of China, the U.S. should ban the app. If Washington decides to take that step, it must be done in tandem with other democracies to ensure Beijing’s propagandists and censors can’t own the Chinese-speaking world’s public square.

Mr. Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He lived in China for seven years.

The release of the so-called ‘Twitter Files’ continues, with attention now turning to Twitter’s relationship with agencies including the FBI and DHS. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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