What is WeChat and why is Trump targeting it?

On Friday, Donald Trump issued twin executive orders that would ban any US transactions with the Chinese companies that own TikTok and WeChat, saying the US must take “aggressive action” in the interest of national security. TikTok, a video-sharing app, has come under fire from US lawmakers and the Trump administration over national security concerns. But what is WeChat?

WeChat is an immensely popular and all-encompassing Chinese social media platform. In 2018, it surpassed 1 billion users worldwide. Within China people use WeChat for an endless list of services including communication, e-payments, banking, ride-hailing and online shopping, all integrated directly into the service. During the pandemic, it also runs a large portion of the various government-mandated health code apps that designate people as being under quarantine or allowed to travel.

Most western messaging apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, are banned in China, so users in the US use WeChat to communicate with friends and family in China, as well as conduct business transaction and advertise.

WeChat has been criticised for a lack of transparency regarding user data, privacy and security – because WeChat is used for nearly everything, the user data it collects is immense. Like many other apps originating from China, WeChat is also accused of actively censoring content deemed detrimental to the Chinese government while promoting propaganda locally and abroad.

It is owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd, a huge Chinese conglomerate that focuses mainly on social media, entertainment and e-commerce within Asia. It has invested heavily in tech and digital, ranging from Reddit, Snapchat, Spotify and Discord to Tesla, Uber, Universal Music and Lyft.

It also has extensive investment in the video games industry, including whole ownership of Riot Games (League of Legends) and substantial stakes in Supercell (Clash of Clans), and Epic Games (Fortnite). The broad wording of the order led to fears the company’s wider gaming investments could be impacted, until the White House reportedly confirmed to the LA Times that it is intended only to target transactions relating to WeChat, not Tencent.

The executive order prohibits “any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with Tencent Holdings Ltd” or its subsidiaries.

Additional reporting by Patrick Lum and Pei Lin Wu

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