Trump’s WeChat and TikTok ban is dumb. It’s the latest of many dumb things done by a dumb president. As an American, I can freely say that online. If my fellow Americans continue their collective shoulder-shrug about Trump’s WeChat and TikTok ban, I might not be able to for much longer.
What the hell is a WeChat, anyway?
I know very little about TikTok, so I’m not going to write too much about it. I do know a little bit about WeChat.
Some say that WeChat is “Chinese Facebook”, but it’s way more than that. The app is deeply ingrained into daily life in China. Want to meet up with your friends for drinks? WeChat. Need to rent a bike to get to the bar? WeChat. When it comes time to pay for your drinks? WeChat.
You can do almost everything with it. Since arriving in China, I’ve used WeChat on a daily basis. We send every single piece of work communication through WeChat. There are probably even more features that I could access, but my Chinese skills are sadly limited.
To be completely honest, it’s an ugly, lumbering, clunky pain in the ass. The interface is awkward and uncomfortable. Often, the thing you need to access is buried somewhere four clicks down. There are regularly long lines behind the ticket booths in the metro stations while someone fumbles to pay for their subway ride with WeChat.
It’s also a huge hassle to set up. Your WeChat account is tied to your phone number. Sometimes, when you’re first setting it up, the app will decide that your phone number is “suspicious” and then you have to find someone to “verify” you. I don’t even fully understand what this verification process is, but I believe it involves alchemical formulas, forensic calculus and a fair bit of magic.
But, what can you do? This awkward, green, pain-in-the-ass app is what China uses, so we use it when we’re in China. And once you get used to it, it’s really not that bad.
Trump’s WeChat ban hurts Chinese Americans
Not that bad, but definitely not the sort of thing that’s ever going to catch on in America. Why would we use WeChat when we have such a bounty of other, more user-friendly apps designed to keep us addicted to our phones?
Except of course, for Americans who need to talk to people in China. That’s me, of course, but there are also millions of Chinese Americans who use WeChat on a daily basis.
WeChat is one of the only ways Chinese immigrants and their families in America can keep in touch with people back in the old country. There are millions of baby pictures, birthday wishes and just simple “how are you?”s flying through the cloud across the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis.
Under Trump’s executive order, millions of American citizens will, practically, be unable to legally talk to their relatives overseas.
You could argue that people can use other apps, like, what about email? Well, let me ask you this… have you ever tried to teach your elderly grandmother how to use a new piece of technology? Have you ever tried to teach her how to use a new piece of technology that operates in a foreign language?
Trump’s WeChat ban is a needlessly cruel blow to the Chinese American community in order to score some cheap political points.
Everybody wants your personal data
The argument for the ban is that WeChat and TikTok collect American’s user data. The Chinese Communist Party is secretly collecting all those baby pictures as part of its nefarious plans to take over the world.
TikTok, the one that’s been big in the news, actually doesn’t collect any more data than any other social networking site.
That shouldn’t make you rest any easier, necessarily. Facebook, Google and all the rest make bajillions of dollars selling our personal data. And, the U.S. Government spies on Americans all the time. Google “Edward Snowden” if you don’t believe me.
And it is worse in China. China’s internet is heavily censored. Again, I’ve heard stories of people posting anti-government things on WeChat and having the police knock on their door the next day. And WeChat collects a lot of data, too.
The data collection issue is creepy as hell, but it happens on both sides. It doesn’t warrant an outright ban. Remember when everyone had that app that made you look like an old person? Then remember when everyone deleted that same app because they were worried about Russians collecting their private data? Nobody needed to ban anything.
Privacy and the issues around data collection are important issues. There needs to be more restrictions on what bit tech takes from us overall, and probably a conversation about who controls the internet in general. Banning certain apps because the Chinese might get their hands on your stupid ice bucket challenge video is not the answer.
And if you’re a political dissident, you probably shouldn’t be posting your plans to subvert your government on WeChat, or any social media app, anyway. There are plenty of alternatives out there that are well beyond the scope of this blog post.
Trump’s WeChat ban might out China China
Did you know that the United States has more surveillance cameras per capita than China?
Yes, China has more in terms of pure numbers. Based on my observations, I’d estimate the number to be somewhere around “a buttload” of cameras. But they’ve also got 1.4 billion people. China has about 14 surveillance cameras per person. America has 15.
Ever since 9/11, the U.S. government has been slowly eroding away civil liberties. The Patriot Act only recently expired. Guantanamo Bay is still open, and as far as anyone knows, still waterboarding people. In fact, some of the most nefarious things China’s been accused of were inspired and enabled by the U.S. war on terror.
So, when America tries to call out China for something on the world stage, China responds with “uh, you guys do it to.” And they’ve kind of got a point.
And now an American president is making an executive decision about what apps people can download. I don’t really like the phrase “slippery slope” but this slope is slathered with Vaseline.
Maybe you don’t care because you’re older than 14 and don’t use TikTok. Maybe you aren’t Chinese, never talk to anyone in China and don’t intend to ever talk to anyone in China, so you don’t use WeChat.
But what happens when a president decides that Black Lives Matter websites need to be shut down? Or maybe union organizing sites? What if Reddit is determined to be the tool of some foreign power? And so on.
Trump’s WeChat and TikTok ban set a pretty horrible precedent.
And nobody seems to care…
The worst part of all this, in my mind, are American’s reactions. From what I can tell reading the news and social media, the overall response has been a collective “meh.”
For the life of me, I can’t understand why people aren’t more fired up about this.
Conservatives: you guys have been all up in arms for months about the government taking away your freedom by making people wear masks during a pandemic. You’ve been upset for years about the government putting any limitation on guns. Now that same government is literally telling you that you can’t use certain apps, and you’re fine with that?
Liberals: good lord, this is Trump. This is the guy sending unmarked vans to round up protesters, and putting children in cages along the border. You’ve been talking for months about how Trump is turning America into a fascist state.
But, no. The Democrats in congress are going to put up a fight against Trump’s executive orders on unemployment benefits and how they should be authorized by congress. Because nothing gets people mobilized in an election year like a debate over legalistic procedural issues.
America has a lot of problems. There are times, looking at my home country from a distance, where I think “how is this even a functioning society?”
But, despite all the problems, America does have a relatively free and open internet, and relatively free speech. Sometimes, those things can be annoying, especially when you have to comb through your crazy old high school classmate’s conspiracy theory Facebook posts just to see some cute cat pictures, but they are also things I promise you’ll miss when you don’t have them.
Don’t take that shit for granted, America.