President Donald Trump’s ban on transactions using popular Chinese messaging app WeChat will cut ties to families and friends in China, millions of users in the US fear, as they become the latest casualties in the standoff between the two nations.
WeChat, owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, is popular among Chinese students, expats and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China. Most popular messaging apps in the US, including Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Telegram have been blocked in China.
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“I came to the US for free access to information. I feel I’m targeted by Trump," said Tingru Nan, a Chinese graduate student at the University of Delaware. "I’m living in constant fear now thinking I might get disconnected with friends and families.”
The ban will cut off far more than the up to six million Chinese people who live in the United States. In the past three months, WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, according to analytics firms Apptopia.
Expats, who are adept at working around oppressive firewalls in their home country, are preparing backup plans while in America.
Some WeChat users have started to share backup contacts for a limited number of apps that are still available in China, including Microsoft's Skype and LinkedIn.
Others plan to do what they do at home to get around the "Great Firewall," as the blockade of foreign apps in China is known, by using virtual private networks (VPN) that mask a user's identity on a public network.
"When in China I need to use VPN to make Gmail and Instagram work. I've never imagined that I need to do similar things in the US," said Tao Lei, a Philadelphia-based tech worker.
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Allison Chan, a Chinese-American in Florida, uses a VPN every time she visits China to access US sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter, which have been blocked by the Chinese government.
"After the 45-day period is up, I'll experiment with it and see if we can still use WeChat," Chan said.
She said WeChat has been a major tool for her and her parents to communicate with her grandparents in China.
"I understood the argument about security, but for me, it was more about how I'm going to talk to my family," Chan said. “My parents are worried about my grandparents because their health has been declining and they want to get constant updates about them."
Some Chinese expats in America worry that this is only the latest salvo in a worsening US-China relationship.
“My parents are more worried than me when they saw the news,” said Yun Li, a User Experience (UX) designer in Boston who is from Guangdong, China. “They also asked me to seriously consider moving back to China given the current political environment,” she added.
- Reporting by Krystal Hu; additional reporting by Echo Wang