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When Risa Cheung received a call from her childhood friend Friday morning telling her the popular messaging app WeChat would soon be removed from American app stores, she couldn’t believe it.
“I use WeChat. My parents, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, extended family, all their friends in the Chinese community, they use it,” the 27-year-old New York City resident told VICE News. “I have family still in China that use WeChat, and it’s the only way we communicate with each other.”
For many Chinese Americans like Cheung, WeChat is the primary link between China and the diaspora in the U.S. But when the Trump administration announced that apps like WeChat and TikTok would no longer be available on American app stores starting Sept. 20 at 11:59 p.m., millions of WeChat users and their friends and family in their homeland found themselves scrambling to find a last-minute, and likely less intuitive, alternative.
“With WeChat, we don't need things like phone cards or worrying about dialing and paying for long-distance phone calls,” Cheung said. “We can easily share pictures with each other and keep each other updated. It keeps us feeling like we're close.
For months, President Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to stop the app from being used here in the U.S., citing privacy and security issues and data mining from the Chinese government that threaten national security. While true, the same can be said for a number of popular smartphone apps available for download in the U.S., including those developed by American companies.
But many Americans don’t understand just how ubiquitous WeChat has become in recent years and how damaging its removal from digital storefronts will be, according to John Yang, the executive director of the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice. The app has become an integral part of Chinese-American life that connects immigrants and non-English speakers to important local services, education, organizing, and activism, even serving as a community bulletin board.
“As we've seen the administration take steps toward banning WeChat, the fear and anxiety within the community has been quite tremendous,” Yang said. “Especially with first-generation Chinese American immigrants here, it is as popular as iPhone messaging, text messaging, PayPal, Twitter, and all of these types of platforms that we use every day of our lives.”
Though users who have the app already will still have access to its services, the ban means it will no longer receive the crucial updates and developer support needed for future mobile operating systems.
Yuquing Liu, a Chinese graduate student at Northeastern University in Boston, told VICE News that WeChat is how she and all other international students communicate on campus. Now she’s worried about the long-term stability of the app.
“This is going to have a very severe influence on our daily lives,” she said. “I’m sitting here wondering: If I get a new iPhone, will I still be allowed to download it? There are just so many questions.”
Liu said that while she understands concerns over privacy have become a concern for politicians and the tech community, she doesn’t think these issues trickle down to the average American who’s just trying to stay connected.
“I think for ordinary people, privacy issues are not a big enough reason to not use WeChat,” she said.
Liu said she’ll likely switch to an older texting software called “QQ” when the ban goes into effect. But while Liu has already thought about an alternative, the Chinese community at large hasn’t done so, according to Roland Hwang, an attorney and secretary for the Association of Chinese Americans.
“I have not heard any sort of unified decision on a new app,” Hwang said. “I think there’s an element of surprise speed at which these pronouncements are occurring. So many other methods of communication, including Facebook, just aren’t available across the Pacific.”
For now, Cheung said, she’s going to be kicking it into high gear to get the word out to family and friends who might not have heard about the ban. But she’s still anticipating a hectic transition in the coming months.
“I think this ban is not giving a long enough lead time for the many people that depend on this app to switch to something else,” she said. “If there are legitimate concerns from the government about apps that are created in China, I understand. I just think that more time would maybe be better. We're not really prepared for that change.”
The speed at which the ban goes into effect has meant confusion for users who want to maintain their connection to China.
“There's almost a disbelief that this can actually happen,” Hwang said. “You know, the average Chinese American still learning about the fact that this may happen, and what the implications are. I think the community has been fractured in terms of how to respond.”
Even if the community finds an alternative, introducing a new application to millions of smartphone users will be a hurdle in itself. Chinese Americans and their families will have to agree on a new app and then figure out how to use it.
“It will be difficult for a certain generation of Chinese Americans to learn a new technology,” Yang said. “You can just imagine what it’s going to be like for immigrant communities that know certain applications, that know it’s reliability, and that it’s in their native language. There is no equivalent to WeChat right now.”