Harvard Business Review calls it the “one app to rule them all”; the Economist: “the digital bedrock of Chinese society”. Trump wants to “strike at China’s heart” wrote the Washington Post, as it “targets a product tied to every part of economic and social life.”
President Trump has declared that he will ban WeChat (and TikTok) and the rest of the world is looking on in alarm (or, perhaps, delight). Certainly Chinese everywhere are aghast at the possibility of not being able to keep in touch with family and friends. It makes the Great Firewall a reality where western apps are banned in China and the main channel of communication – WeChat – is banned in America. As we speak, tech experts will be poring over alternatives to keep WeChat alive.
WeChat could be part of the election battle over the next 3 months. Many Chinese voters in the States will shift from Trump to Biden – that is how strongly Chinese feel about this order. Will Biden overturn the order if he wins and bring WeChat back?
Alan Kohler, Eureka Report expressed what many of us know to be true: “a ban on WeChat in Australia would be much more painful, and potentially disastrous … it would probably mean a collapse in the numbers of Chinese tourists or students, possibly an end to them entirely. There aren’t many tourists and foreign students now, of course, but they won’t return if they can’t use WeChat here.”
WeChat is an entire ecosystem to the Chinese – they spend around 4 hours a day on it and there are over a billion active users worldwide. You can do everything you need to do in WeChat, from booking taxis, to ordering anything (and paying), booking appointments – yourself or your pet, reading news, tracking COVID, doing business deals, investing, sending messages and making calls, transferring documents, keeping up with social media and breaking news, even interpreting for meetings or legal cases have been done via WeChat. Many Chinese in America have said that they will give up their iPhone if WeChat is not able to be used on it; others indicate that they will not travel or go to study in America if WeChat is not available – that could be a boon to other countries targeting them (i.e. everywhere else), especially Australia.
WeChat is a powerful communication tool and while it is used by businesses to market and sell to Chinese, it is also used to channel information. For example, Chin Communications set up its own WeChat media platform, ChinSight, to disseminate important information to the Chinese community in Australia. We recognised a need and demand for correct and timely information during the bushfires and especially since COVID. There has been a lot in the news about a lack of translation or worse – poor translations – and ChinSight has breached this gap delivering official information in Chinese. The Chinese community has been relatively free from COVID and getting timely information has been critical. We’ve also seen how politicians in Australia and around the world harnessed the power of WeChat during elections to win support. So WeChat is a valuable tool to many non-Chinese too.
In Australia there are over 3 million users of WeChat and that is significant in purchasing power and influence; from those 3 million accounts is the power to reach millions more across the Chinese diaspora and into China. Many companies find it unequalled in the ability to reach buyers of their good and services, or to influence them here in Australia and in China.
This US ban only sets up the likelihood of a total firewall that China and the West cannot breach. Or other countries may be beneficiaries if they are sensible and don’t follow suit with a WeChat ban. A WeChat Covid-led recovery – now there is something to inspire!