Last week, Donald Trump announced plans to ban downloads of the Chinese-owned mobile applications TikTok and WeChat in what appeared to be a tool for political leverage in an era of tense Sino-U.S. relations. On Sunday, the possibility of bans on either app was brought to a halt; TikTok made a deal with Oracle, and a U.S. federal judge blocked the ban of WeChat.
The Trump administration claimed its aim was to combat the possibility that the two Chinese-owned apps are collecting data from American users that could be given to the Chinese government. Trump’s threats particularly targeted WeChat (known in Chinese as 微信, or “micro-message”), a mobile app launched by the Shenzhen-based company Tencent. A deeper dive into WeChat and Tencent, however, reveal that the application and its mother company represent more than just instruments of control by Chinese political bodies through “Big Brother” surveillance. In their recent article, “The path to WeChat: How Tencent’s culture shaped the most popular Chinese app, 1998–2011,” Gianluigi Negro, Gabriele Balbi, and Paolo Bory showcase how WeChat’s success factors reflect nuanced digital media outside of Western contexts. Through this lens, Trump’s ban reflects the logic that national security is not only threatened by concerns about data privacy, but also the influences of non-Western digital media in the West.
With a market value of over $460 billion, WeChat is the third richest company in China in the internet services sector — behind giants