Chinese residents in the Chicago area are concerned they could lose access to the popular communication platform WeChat after the Trump administration announced a ban last week, citing security reasons.
Although a federal judge in California ruled on Sunday to temporarily block the White House’s ban, the app’s future in the U.S. remains unclear.
Local users of the social media and messaging platform said a ban would have significantly altered the way they communicate with friends and family abroad, as well as within the Chinese community in the Chicago area.
“These are people for whom this platform is completely interwoven in their lives,” said state Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, who says her district includes nearly 30,000 Chinese residents.
Mah said many Chinese immigrants use WeChat to stay in touch with family and friends in China and the Chicago area, share news and information, find nannies and apartments, and buy and sell goods and services. The lawmaker said she uses the app to tell constituents about public programs such as rental assistance, business grants and unemployment benefits — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Chinatown-based Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) said her organization also relied on WeChat during the past several months to reach residents who were not getting updates from its email list or Facebook group. CBCAC posted community events and important government policy announcements to reach residents in Chinatown and the suburbs, McKibben said.
She added that most of the reaction to the ban came in early August, when the Trump administration issued executive orders announcing the ban on both WeChat and TikTok, a popular video app.
“The initial reaction [in August] was that this is horrible, this is going to make it difficult for us to communicate with friends and family, and no other group has been treated this way,” McKibben said. “They felt that this is discrimination against Chinese people.”
For WeChat users like Ren Li — who owns a business that helps international students find schools, housing and support in the Chicago area — a ban would be devastating.
“All my clients in China were kind of scared,” Li told WBEZ. “I got tons of calls and messages [saying,] ‘Are you still able to use this today?’ ‘Are you still able to use this tomorrow?’”
After hearing the news of Sunday’s ruling temporarily blocking the WeChat ban, Li said she was glad and relieved. “I was hoping this would be the way things go,” she said, adding she hopes there will be public support for the Chinese community and that the Trump administration will not appeal the case.
Li, who also uses WeChat to send photos and videos of her children to their grandparents in China, said she uses the app to promote mental health resources for the international students she helps.
“We do webinars and promotions [over WeChat], we support parents who have lost their children,” Li said. “Mental health problems are very serious in the Asian community.”
The ban on TikTok and WeChat was the Trump administration’s latest attempt to keep China in check, following the trade war and other efforts to tamp down businesses from the global economic powerhouse. The ban on TikTok was averted on Saturday in a last-minute deal involving U.S. companies Oracle and Walmart. As for legal fight over WeChat, the Trump administration has not announced whether it plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.
McKibben, with CBCAC, said WeChat has been a popular platform for pro-Trump Chinese residents in the Chicago area.
“If anything, those voices tend to be louder than the ones that are not pro-Trump,” she said, adding that those users often stay silent on policy decisions that affect the Chinese community negatively, including the WeChat ban.
Li, who says she is “not political,” said, “I’m a loyal American citizen, and I want to obey what the government wants us to do, but I really hope they could give us the freedom to just [use] a normal communication platform.”
She said she hopes the Trump administration can find a data security solution just for users working in government. “We are just normal people, people using [WeChat] for their daily life,” she said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.