WeChat ban a catch-22 for Chinese Australians

Chinese social media network WeChat is facing global scrutiny and possible bans due to its handling of user data privacy, its censorship and surveillance practices and the widespread misinformation and propaganda campaigns it hosts supposedly on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet members of the Chinese diaspora in Australia continue to use WeChat as their main social media platform, despite the availability of alternative social media networks that claim to protect privacy and freedom of expression.

Global scrutiny of Chinese digital platforms such as TikTok and WeChat has been front-page news since July 2020. These globally successful Chinese platforms are caught in the crossfire of geopolitical tensions between China and India, and China and the United States. They have been subjected to scrutiny over ‘security’, ‘surveillance’ and ‘influence’.

In July, India banned TikTok and WeChat along with 57 other Chinese apps amid military tensions along the India–China border, citing a threat to ‘sovereignty and integrity’. In August, US President Donald Trump weighed in on the debate by signing two executive orders banning any US transactions with WeChat operator Tencent and TikTok operator ByteDance citing ‘security concerns’. This came as ByteDance was pressured to ‘sell’ its US TikTok operations to a US company. Microsoft, followed by Oracle, entered into discussions about taking over the popular app.

In Australia, the same apps are also under increasing scrutiny from the Australian government and face the threat of being banned. At the end of July 2020, TikTok and other global social media companies fronted a Senate inquiry into foreign interference conducted on social media misinformation.

WeChat has been at the centre of controversy over surveillance and censorship on Chinese digital platforms for a long time. Public scrutiny intensified in Australia in the context of the potential WeChat ban in the United States. The Australian media has given extensive coverage to claims that a private WeChat group was inappropriately engaged by a staffer of New South Wales Legislative Council parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane. Two Chinese scholars in the same chat group had their Australian visas cancelled.

The potential ban in the United States has divided opinions into three camps. Those opposing the ban say they rely on WeChat to communicate with family and friends. The more neutral position supports the right of users to choose their own platform but dislikes WeChat’s censorship practices. Supporters of the ban believe WeChat infringes on freedom of expression.

Some members of the Chinese Australian community have created parallel chat groups on WhatsApp, Letstalk, Line or Telegram in case of a local WeChat ban. But they continue to be drawn back to WeChat as their main social media platform. Why do members of the Chinese diaspora choose to self-censor when they have many other options available? The answer may lie in platform affordances available in WeChat as well as techno-material features of the app that produce ‘habits’, engender ‘necessity’ and provide users with a sense of ‘vitality’.

People are attracted to the platform for its design. WeChat is the international version of Weixin, which has targeted the Chinese market since 2011. It has been continuously optimising, improving and adding features as its global market expands. It is now an influential platform, open to third-party developers and content creators for free. This openness in platform design has ensured its agility as an innovative super-platform. People are attracted to the platform for its all-in-one functionality. The super-app concept is now an industry standard and copied among digital start-ups elsewhere.

New Chinese migrants take their social media habits to their host countries, even when they use ‘Western’ or non-Chinese social media platforms alongside Chinese ones. Research has shown that the formation of a social media habit is an intentional and emotional process driven by conscious decision making as well as unconscious affective attachment.

WeChat is the only platform that allows members of the Chinese diaspora to connect with family and friends in China, where familiar ‘Western’ platforms are banned. Chinese Australians are caught in a catch-22. They feel it necessary to continue using WeChat even if they sympathise with accusations of the platform’s monopolistic practices and unfair competition in the global market.

While it is legitimate to raise security concerns over user data privacy and content censorship on WeChat, one should not overlook legitimate consumer choice. As Wanning Sun has argued, misconceptions about WeChat have the potential to undermine the diversity and vitality of political discussions. Sun suggests that there is a risk of underestimating the platform as a vehicle for robust political debate and civic participation in Australia.

Chinese Australians are not dupes of an unscrupulous authoritarian party-state which only intends to influence and interfere. They often exercise their own agency as informed consumers, despite being stuck between a rock and a hard place. They may unwittingly contribute to China’s censorship algorithms; they also resist Chinese government censorship on WeChat and create counter discourses that penetrate the porous boundary between WeChat and Weixin.

It is of vital importance that a distinction be made between WeChat as an instrument of Beijing’s propaganda and the user-generated content that it carries. Banning WeChat does not solve the problem of data security in Australia or the United States. Australia should take a more democratic approach through platform governance regulations applied equally to all international platforms irrespective of their country of origin. This includes implementing transparent user data privacy and protection frameworks to safeguard Australian citizens’ rights to freedom of expression.

This article first appeared on East Asia Forum on 21 October 2020.