Why WeChat, Given Reprieve By Biden Administration, is China's Most Controversial App

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will reverse a Trump-era executive order banning Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat to conduct its own "evidence-based" analysis of the potential security risks of using the apps.

OnShore Security CEO Stel Valavanis told Newsweek that he believes Biden's approach is "more nuanced" than his predecessor because Biden is taking the time to build a case around these apps instead of a "heavy-handed" outright ban.

Biden's announcement Wednesday noted that the Department of Commerce will make recommendations on how to further protect American's personal data and will address the risk of apps connected to China.

Caleb Barlow, CEO of CynergisTek, said Biden's move is a "recognition that [cybersecurity] is important."

"There are some other ways we can influence getting the right level of regulatory oversight over these applications than just attempting to ban them," Barlow told Newsweek.

WeChat, owned by Chinese tech company Tencent, is known as a "super app" in China. It's a messaging app where more than one billion users can also read the news, make payments, play games and book travel tickets.

The app has faced accusations of censorship and user surveillance.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump banned several Chinese apps, including WeChat, over fears of data collection and national security threats.

"This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans' personal and proprietary information," Trump wrote in his executive order. "The application captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives."

The Chinese government denied those accusations.

"The United States is using national security as an excuse and using state power to oppress non-American businesses," China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at the time.

WeChat China
A customer makes a payment using a Wechat QR payment code (C) via her smartphone, next to an Alipay QR code (L), at a vegetable market in Beijing on November 3, 2020. The Biden administration ended the Trump-era executive order that tried to ban Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat to conduct its own “evidence-based” analysis of the apps to identify any national security risks. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Citizen Lab, a research lab out of the University of Toronto, found that WeChat users are under surveillance in order for the app to monitor political content in China. This includes content that is critical of the Chinese government or its policies and support for pro-Democracy activists and ideas.

Their research found that certain keywords were blacklisted, including references to Tiananmen Square and the pro-democracy movement in China and Hong Kong.

In February 2020, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said it would punish "websites, platforms, and accounts" for publishing "harmful" content and "spreading fear" related to COVID-19. The CAC even singled out Tencent, saying it would carry out a "thematic inspection" of their platform.

Citizen Lab recently found that hundreds of keyword combinations related to the COVID-19 pandemic were blocked on WeChat between January and May 2020.

For example, WeChat blocked phrases about Li Wenliang, a local doctor who was an early coronavirus whistleblower, mentions of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it was coupled with the word "coronavirus" and criticism of the Chinese government's handling of the outbreak.

Citizen Lab also suggests that WeChat operates on a "one app, two systems" censorship model where keyword filtering is heavily implemented on users in China or with Chinese phone numbers who use the sister app Weixin but are less restrictive for international users.

In a statement to The Verge, Tencent said that the company "operates in a complex regulatory environment, both in China and elsewhere. Like any global company, a core tenant is that we comply with local laws and regulations in the markets where we operate."

It added that Weixin and WeChat use different servers with data stores in different locations.

"WeChat's servers are outside of China and not subject to Chinese law, while Weixin's servers are in China and subject to Chinese law," the statement said.

The Verge also reported in 2019 that WeChat banned Chinese Americans from discussing the pro-democracy candidate victories in Hong Kong.