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Family communication, community organizing in Cleveland's AsiaTown neighborhood threatened with proposed WeChat ban

Posted at 1:10 PM, Oct 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-02 13:10:58-04

CLEVELAND — It’s easy to get lost scrolling through TikTok’s huge stream of videos made by people all over the world.

While TikTok is primarily for fun, WeChat plays a central role in keeping friends and families in touch across the world.

“That’s how we are all connected,” said Irena Wong, who uses WeChat to communicate with friends and family across various states. “Since WeChat is there in China and also in America, it is the perfect app to communicate from two different sides of the world.”

Wong says WeChat is the best app her family has found since it supports the Chinese language on phones better than other apps, helping family members bridge language gaps.

For older relatives who struggle to type on smartphones, WeChat allows them to record a voice message for Irena to playback. She says she sometimes sifts through old conversations to hear those relative's voices.

“It’s really reassuring to hear their voice than just reading a message,” said Wong.

“It’s our texting app, it’s our international texting app,” said Laurie Maldonado, who teaches English to students in China over Zoom. “Facebook, Instagram, the Chinese kids are blocked from all that.”

Right now, the only thing keeping WeChat available in the United States is a federal court’s injunction after the Trump Administration Executive Orders tried to ban the apps in the United States.

The U.S. Government says WeChat and TikTok are national security threats because they are owned by Chinese companies which might be compelled to hand over data to the Chinese government.

See the U.S. Department of Commerce's policy and statement about WeChat here.

See the U.S. Department of Commerce's poly and statement about TikTok here.

“You have to watch for the incentives: why is that money coming in, are they passive [investors], are they active [investors], what are they doing with the information they’re getting,” said Case Western Reserve University Assistant Professor in the School of Law Anat Alon-Beck.

Alon-Beck says the national security threats are shared by both Democrats and Republicans because we know that companies and governments can learn so much about American users from their data. But, since TikTok and WeChat are relatively new, she says laws governing those technologies haven’t caught up yet.

“The issue is we have these new technologies and people are trying to figure out what’s going on with the technologies, what’s the outreach, who are the companies,” said Alon-Beck. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

But at the same time, the United States and China are locked in a trade war where each side has already imposed new tariffs and retaliated with even more tariffs.

“So it could be that [proposed bans for WeChat and TikTok] is part of political moves,” said Alon-Beck.

Regardless of the reason, the battle threatens the work community organizers like Xinyuan Cui does in places like AsiaTown in with MidTown Cleveland.

“First reaction is panic because WeChat helped us serve the community,” said Cui.

She said the community list MidTown Cleveland uses to communicate with AsiaTown residents relies on WeChat for many of the same reason that Irena Wong’s family uses it: compatibility with Chinese characters and ease of use for people who are not tech savvy. It’s become an effective way to spread the word about community services especially during the coronavirus.

“So learning technology is a really hard thing, especially for seniors,” said Cui. “Some people just learned how to use WeChat they finally have a way to communicate with others.”

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