Should WeChat be banned? Australian users say noNov 30, 2022
Banning WeChat/Weixin would mean cutting Australian users’ “lifeline” to China; it would risk further alienating an already alienated community amid the anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia. For non-Chinese WeChat users in Australia, banning the platform would deprive them of individual choice and agency.
I met Harry at an informal family party on a Saturday afternoon in a country town in Victoria, Australia. He was drinking Shiraz from a winery that he used to own, with “more than 600 years of wine-making history” in Europe. He was also tossing around his iPhone in his hand while telling me how wonderful WeChat was, “I’m probably the earliest converter [of WeChat]. WeChat has remained my main social media platform. I don’t even use Zoom. I just get people to talk to me on WeChat—it’s got everything.” When I brought up the topic of the dilemmas that WeChat posed to Western democracy and a possible WeChat ban, he snapped, “Don’t be ridiculous!”
Harry is not a “typical” WeChat user. Among the approximately 690,000 daily active users in Australia, the majority are people of Chinese background—the typical WeChat or Weixin users. Research has shown that WeChat/Weixin is the most used social media platform among Chinese living in Australia, followed by Weibo and Facebook, with 92% reporting accessing the Chinese platform either hourly or daily. With more than 1.27 billion monthly active users worldwide, the ubiquity and influence of WeChat/Weixin in China and among Chinese migrants and their associates in countries like Australia have made the Chinese super app the envy of industry players in the tech and social media industry. The all-in-one super app model has been copied elsewhere.
I use the “slashed” term WeChat/Weixin to differentiate the two systems divided by the Great Firewall of China, to suggest their inter-operability for some services and functions, and to illustrate their inseparability and interpenetration in China’s platform governance. Weixin (registered with Chinese mobile numbers) and WeChat (registered with non-Chinese mobile numbers) accounts are governed by two different sets of terms and conditions in user regulation and data governance. The two versions have been inter-operational on the same app. Many Chinese Australians are Weixin users, particularly those who came to Australia as students, visitors, and migrants after 2011 (the year when Weixin was rolled out in China; WeChat was developed a year later). They have continued to use Weixin because of the techno-cultural affordances of the platform and social media habits that people formed prior to migration, as well as the necessity to remain connected with families, friends, and networks in China where major “Western” platforms are banned. According to my research, some of those new Chinese arrivals (including Chinese international students) have both WeChat accounts and Weixin accounts, while earlier Chinese migrants of the pre-Weixin era are mostly registered with their Australian mobile numbers as WeChat account users.
The success of the Chinese multi-purpose social media platforms has been the cause of its problems in Western countries like Australia. Its censorship practices and impact on freedom of speech, as well as national security concerns—that is, its weaponization by the Chinese government for public diplomacy, misinformation, and foreign interference—are the two chief concerns for the public policy establishment and think tanks. For ordinary WeChat users in Australia like Harry, such concerns are politically and ideologically driven, and the convenience of the platform in facilitating communication and business deals overrides the so-called threat to democracy and national security.
For Chinese Australians, when and how to use WeChat is a strategic decision. As I wrote before, Chinese Australians are caught in a catch-22 situation when it comes to the role of WeChat/Weixin in their lives. On one hand, they feel it necessary to continue using the platform even if they sympathise with accusations of the platform’s monopolistic practices, unfair competition in the global market, and lack of protection of Australian users’ data privacy. On the other hand, many of them have scaled down on the use of WeChat only for personal communication and have moved political discussions to other platforms (e.g. Twitter, WhatsApp, Line, Signal, and Telegram) to avoid shadow bans (posts only visible to WeChat users but invisible to Weixin users, even in the same chat group) or account suspension (esp. during sensitive times for posting sensitive content, e.g. posting the tankman image in early June at the anniversary of the June-4th Tiananmen student protects of 1989). They would come back to WeChat/Weixin when discussing issues related to Australian domestic politics (e.g. during elections), social affairs (e.g. vaccination policies), and businesses and lifestyles.
Research has shown that the Chinese platform is an important vehicle for political discussions and civic participation in Australia. It has played a vital role in facilitating democratic participation of Chinese-Australians and public communication among Australian government departments, Chinese community organisations, and members of Chinese communities beyond China-born, Mandarin-speaking individuals. As Wanning Sun has argued, the concerns about WeChat/Weixin censorship should not undermine the diversity and vitality of political discussions that are conducive to multicultural citizenship and community building in Australia.
This view is echoed by many members in the Chinese community, including those who are strongly against the CCP censorship. Banning WeChat/Weixin would mean cutting their “lifeline” in their connection to China; it would risk further alienating an already alienated community amid the anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia. For non-Chinese WeChat users like Harry and Chinese users of WeChat/Weixin in Australia, banning the platform would deprive them of individual choice and agency. It is common for members of multicultural communities to use different social media platforms to communicate with different cohorts of people and form multilingual communities. WeChat/Weixin is one of many social media platforms people can choose to use more, less, or not at all.
It would be disheartening if I left China, where certain platforms are banned, to another country (Australia) only to find that it would copy the same tricks from the CCP’s playbook. Anti-Chinese racism aside, it would be the sad case of the pot calling the kettle black. I do not think this will happen.