Every Saturday at 8 p.m., I settle in front of my phone. My grandparents’ pixelated faces fill up the screen, moving around in time-lapsed slices. Their voices trip over semi-frozen video frames and five-second audio lags, further compounding my novice-level Chinese. It’s frustrating. It’s horrifyingly messy.
But we’ve somehow always made it work, setting aside that precious one hour during which I give life updates, vent my frustrations and watch as my grandparents show me everything from their latest pet goldfish to their bathroom renovation project. Our words, clipped and slightly crippled, hobble across 12 time zones as we take in the precious few waking hours we have together. Our faces are squished into tiny adjacent squares on a 4-inch display, the closest we ever get to erasing the 6,000 miles of open ocean that lies between us.
That might change.
I’m one of the few 19 million WeChat users in America. With the app’s future in limbo, the fate of my weekly grandparent-grandson bonding time walks a thin tightrope. WeChat joins the likes of TikTok, coming to close brushes with outright bans in the midst of worsening U.S.-China relations and revealing just how perilously fragile our modern-day relationships are.
Over the past decade, the Chinese government has steadily unrolled what is arguably the most extensive censorship system in the world and a notoriously self-sufficient, airtight media culture of its own. Among TikTok, QQ and Sina Weibo, WeChat is China’s ultimate substitute for American tech: it’s Facebook, WhatsApp and FaceTime, all rolled into a single app — and it’s the only video-calling platform that exists in both China and the U.S.
For most Chinese Americans caught in the interstices between two rival political systems, WeChat becomes a messenger. It’s the lifeline that allows teary-eyed immigrants to see their loved ones at home. It’s the virtual cashier through which a handful of mom-and-pop stores run their transactions. It’s an unlikely tool for activism, reminding a Chinese American population with traditionally low voter turnout to visit the ballot boxes and allowing users to engage in political conversations at times. And for a Chinese-stuttering, second-generation Asian American college student, it’s his only tether to his grandparents in Shanghai.
But like all technology, WeChat is a double-edged sword. In a nation where the government controls both legal and business spheres, all Chinese tech companies must effectively agree to aid censorship and surveillance efforts. They do so by collecting personal information and relaying it to government databases when necessary, hunting down criminal suspects, weeding out dissent. The result is a largely compromised social media experience that falls just shy of Orwellian. Accounts of users who spread pro-democracy rumors are promptly suspended; protest logistics are traced; videos and articles are culled meticulously to adhere to a single national narrative
The U.S. government, then, should certainly be wary of an app that potentially harvests its users’ data for an antagonistic regime. But an all-out ban — disrupting the lives of millions of Chinese Americans — is the equivalent of taking an eye for an eye, especially when an equally viable, less draconian option still sits on the table: separating national security from the sphere of private life by forbidding government workers from downloading WeChat onto their smartphones. It would be a compromise that protects confidential government information while allowing the millions who rely on the app to continue at their own discretion. Indeed, if the administration successfully manages to shuffle the platforms off the App Store, it will have waded deep into uncharted waters: The US government has never attempted to suspend an avenue of communication, not even during wartime. Protecting national security does not — and should not — come at the cost of cutting down total communication.
Beyond national security concerns, the Trump administration has also alleged that the app spreads misinformation. But for Trump, this only adds icing to a decision layered rich with irony. Rather than target rampant Facebook misinformation campaigns, guard his home turf against the imminent perils of Russian election meddling, or even bother to fact-check his own daily deluge of narcissistically delusional tweets, the Trump administration is attempting to tighten its grip over a large swath of the Chinese American population.
Amid mounting international tensions, Trump’s threatened WeChat and TikTok bans come across as more retaliatory than reasoned — aimed at payback, not prudence.
For now, though, the bans have been blocked. U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler brought Trump’s efforts to a temporary halt, issuing an injunction that cited “scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns” and concerns over the First Amendment. There’s still hope that our nation, priding itself in its democratic tradition of free speech, will live to see another day. But uncertainty lingers, just as looming and present as ever: The U.S. government could appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to overturn the ruling at any time.
So despite the promises of 5G networks and LTE, I still hold my breath every week when I dial to make a video call. And I’ve realized that the scramble over WeChat is at heart a frighteningly apt metaphor for all the relationships in our 21st-century lives: fraught, volatile, tenuous. We bask in the light of glowing rectangles and insulate ourselves. We retreat safely in our Facebook and Twitter echo chambers, closing the doors and bolting shut the locks, until we discover all that’s left connecting us is a single, green-colored app.
At least my grandparents still keep their trusty, 20-year-old plastic landline sitting on their end table. Just in case.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.