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Houston’s Chinese Community Braces For Possible WeChat Ban

A phone displays icons of the TikTok and WeChat apps.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP
U.S. government restrictions that could effectively make the popular app WeChat nearly impossible to use are being challenged in federal court.

As President Trump’s executive order banning the popular Chinese app continues to be challenged in court, users in Houston say they need the app for different reasons.

For Mei Li, culture and community director at the Chinese Community Center in Houston's Chinatown, there is only one app she uses to stay in touch with her parents in China.

"Every week we use WeChat to communicate," she told Houston Public Media.

They could talk on the phone, she said. But that would cost money, and they couldn't check in with a quick text or picture. Instead, WeChat is an easy, cost-effective way to stay connected to her family.

But that could all change. In August, President Trump issued an executive order banning "transactions" on WeChat over alleged privacy concerns. The Commerce Department hasn't defined which transactions this would affect, but it appears people in the U.S. wouldn't be able to download the app anymore. Trump issued the order along with another one banning TikTok.

Both orders are being challenged in federal court.

While most Americans are probably familiar with TikTok, WeChat is mostly used in Chinese communities, including here in Houston. And those communities are now preparing for the impact of a ban on the popular messaging app.

Dani Madrid-Morales, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Houston, said many people call WeChat a “super app.” He has studied its use in the Chinese diaspora.

"Imagine that you put together Venmo or PayPal and then flight reservation system, your messenger, your SMS, your sports news, and then Reddit and Facebook and Twitter all together into one single app," he said.

For people in China there aren't many alternatives, Madrid-Morales said, because the Chinese government bans most apps Americans use to communicate.

"WhatsApp does not work, (Facebook) Messenger does not work," he said. "So if you want to keep track of what your family members are doing, you need to message them on WeChat."

And Madrid-Morales said it's sometimes used for political organizing. For example, when the Trump administration closed Houston's Chinese consulate, protesters organized through WeChat, he said.

Another key factor is that the app was designed with Chinese language users in mind, he added.

Aside from personal communication, many companies that do business with the Chinese community or with firms in China use the app as well.

At Kung Fu Tea, which has more than a dozen branches in Greater Houston, WeChat is primarily used to coordinate with staff. Annie Kuan, manager at the bubble tea shop's Chinatown branch, said they have created WeChat groups for different stores.

Many of Kung Fu Tea's employees are from China, and Kuan said WeChat is easiest for them.

"Things like posting schedule, anybody who requests for their day off, or any announcement, we are always using WeChat to communicate with all the staff," she said.

At BTIC-America Corp., a Houston-based import-export firm, the app plays an even larger role.

"The businessmen in China, they prefer to use WeChat rather than email," CEO Bill Zheng said. "Almost every day we communicate with them by WeChat."

His company uses the app even with some American customers, and for internal communication — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone switched to remote work.

"We use WeChat for our weekly meeting and for all, most of, the business communication within our company," Zheng said.

A U.S. appeals court recently rejected the Trump Administration's request for an immediate ban, siding with a group of WeChat users who challenged the ban. Another hearing is set for January.

If Trump's ban is successful, Zheng said his company will go back to how they were doing business communication years ago – by phone and email – which would cost them money.

The administration argues the Chinese government is misusing the app to monitor political speech, spy and spread propaganda. And while that is a concern for some WeChat users, Zheng said he wasn't worried about his privacy being compromised.

"I'm just (using it) for business, for personal contact, no secret," he said. "I don't worry about it."

Houston Public Media provided this story.