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Friday, Oct 30, 2020

China blasts US ban as WeChat users prepare for workarounds

China blasts US ban as WeChat users prepare for workarounds

US ban on ubiquitous Chinese messaging app WeChat is angering overseas Chinese, forcing many to consider possible alternatives

Beijing has condemned Washington’s move to target popular Chinese messaging app WeChat alongside its ban on video platform TikTok, which is angering users at home and abroad, and forcing many to look for possible alternatives to communicate with friends and family.

The US commerce department on Friday announced the ban – effective from Sunday – on downloads of TikTok and WeChat from American app stores, citing national security concerns.

Updates to existing versions of the two apps, as well as money transfers via WeChat – one of its most popular functions – would also be prohibited within the US, the commerce department said.

On Saturday China slammed Washington’s ban on the Chinese-owned mobile apps and has vowed to take countermeasures.

The US move had “severely disturbed the companies’ normal operations, hurt the confidence of global investors in US markets and undermined the global market order,” the commerce ministry said in a statement.

“If the US insists on going its own way, the Chinese side will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard the legitimate rights of Chinese companies,” it said.

Soon after the US ban was announced, China’s commerce ministry unveiled a so-called unreliable entities list, granting Chinese authorities far-reaching powers to take action against foreign companies that are deemed “detrimental to Chinese national security and interests”.

Tencent, the owner of WeChat, said in a statement it was reviewing the US decision and would continue communicating with the US government.

“WeChat was designed to serve international users outside mainland China and has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security,” a spokesman for the company said on Friday.

Data analytics firms Sensor Tower estimates that WeChat has been downloaded by 1.1 million first-time users in the US so far this year, down 31 per cent from 1.6 million during the same period last year.

The immediate impact of the WeChat ban on US users will not be dramatic.

“If you download WeChat after Sunday you can‘t update it. And if you buy a new phone, you cannot download it,” said Cameron Johnson, an adjunct faculty instructor at New York University and partner at consultancy Tidal Wave Solution.

“But when we talk about a couple of months out … beginning of 2021, if people want to change phones, if they want to do different things, it‘s really going to start to have an affect,” he said.

For overseas users of WeChat, predominantly Chinese or Westerners with Chinese friends or business connections, the ban is more of an inconvenience, but they also see it as an overreaction by the Trump Administration.

Kalos Chu, a junior student and president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association, is a US citizen along with his mother who lives in San Diego. They both rely on WeChat to talk to the rest of the family in Chongqing.

“I think it’s just an added barrier … not impossible but it’s inconvenient,” Chu said. “Imagine if Facebook Messenger just stopped working in America. Sure, people would be able to talk. Someone would come up with something else [and] you would move to another platform. It would just be extremely inconvenient.”

Jizhen Lin, a data scientist working in Silicon Valley, uses WeChat to communicate with his elderly parents in China.

“I’m still trying to downplay the impact of the ban for my parents because I don’t want them to worry too much,” he said. “I guess the app will still be functionable for some time at least, and if it’s completely shut down in the future, we will turn to FaceTime and iMessage as our plan B.”

To skirt the ban, some users are considering shifting to a non-US Apple ID, which would allow downloads of the app and its updates, in much the same way that they use VPNs to download apps removed from China‘s app store. Yandex, a Russian equivalent of the Google Play Store, could also be an option for alternative downloads.

“Android-based smartphone users could circumvent the ban by manually installing apps,” said Chen Mulong, a Beijing-based computer engineer with experience in developing Android-based mobile systems.

In its own possible workaround, Tencent has changed the name of its WeChat Work office collaboration app to WeCom, Reuters reported on Friday. The WeCom trademark was registered on August 19, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

On popular Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo, the US bans drew widespread condemnation and scorn from netizens, with some suggesting that American companies such as Apple should be a target for countermeasures.

Meanwhile ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, filed a second complaint with the US Federal Court in Washington DC on Friday night. It challenged the Commerce Department‘s implementation of US President Donald Trump’s August 6 executive order on TikTok, saying the president exceeded his authority and did so for political reasons rather than to stop an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the US, as the law requires.

TikTok also said the Commerce Department ban violated its First Amendment free-speech rights. In August ByteDance filed its first lawsuit, saying the ban deprived it of due process.

A total ban on the use of TikTok is set to take effect on November 12, although US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business Network on Friday that access to the app might be allowed after necessary safeguards were put into place.


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