TikTok, WeChat, Trump, and an Upcoming War

by Colin Berkshire

A friend of mine asked me about the TikTok/WeChat situation between the US and China because I spend so much time in Asia and do so much business with the Chinese. My answer was: “It’s complicated”.

POTUS Trump has signed an executive order essentially banning TikTok and WeChat as of the middle of September. Some US people enjoy debating about whether POTS has the authority to do this, but I think there is ample case law to support that he does. So I don’t find that debate very interesting. (Basically, Americans have no rights whatsoever when it comes to anything that is cross-boarder, and the US Constitution gives nearly all power to the POTUS, going so far as to prohibit Congress from negotiating Treaties.)

WeChat is the primary messaging system in China and the main way that business is done and that Chinese families stay together. It’s so ubiquitous that both my wife and I have WeChat QR codes printed on the back of our business cards.

There are at least four layers to the onion of what is going on:

  1. I accept as “highly likely” that WeChat and TikTok are spyware. They are capturing everything possible about what is happening on your phone and are sending it back to the Chinese government. I would be shocked if it were otherwise. Years ago I noticed my camera behaving oddly whenever WeChat was running in the background on my iPhone.
  2. The economic war with China is escalating. Huiwai is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer (not Samsung or Apple) and they are a massive telecommunications company and Chinese military contractor. Trump used them as the first salvo in his economic war. Trump also used import Tariffs, but this really was nothing more than a tax on American companies and citizens; Chinese stuff is already so cheap that it didn’t make much impact. Banning WeChat is like a knife to the gut…it’s unimaginable how we will function without it.
  3. The upcoming election is at play. Historically, US Citizens with Chinese ancestry have been staunch supporters of the Democratic Party. But in the past election there was an under-reported and dramatic swing to Trump; he overwhelmingly carried the Chinese. (It was less about Trump and more about Hillary Clinton, who was expelled from China and who managed to pretty much alienate every Chinese I have talked about her with. She was highly disliked by the Chinese; this is something most non-Chinese are oblivious to.)
  4. Today’s China is different from five years ago. China has become a totalitarian dictatorship similar to Mao’s within the past five years. China has also encroached globally by using a heavy economic, political, and military hand. Under the previous Chinese president Hu Jintao China was on a path of international harmony. Things have changed. I cannot comment much as I have a Hong Kong “Green Card” and discussion of that situation can easily result in life in prison via a mainland Chinese kangaroo court. But inside of both China and Hong Kong there is genuine fear of the mainland Chinese government. We all are on our best behavior. (The Japanese have an applicable saying: “The nail that stands up gets hammered down.”)

The POTUS has waged a political and economic war with China. The Chinese leadership is perceiving that POTUS is a lame duck (short timer) and that the incoming Democratic leadership is an impotent and spineless. Fearing nothing, the mainland Chinese government is becoming quite brave. So this is Trump’s last hurrah and ability to pressure China. Unfortunately, it’s probably too little, too late. But he wants to do something.

What is truly remarkable is that POTUS is willing to alienate one of his most loyal groups of supporters (Chinese US Citizens) in his fight against the Chinese regime. Cutting off WeChat will hurt this very strong base of supporters but is likely the most powerful option open short of outright war. With this TikTok/WeChat order, he has decided that winning on the Chinese international front is more important than keeping this group of voters. (A contrary opinion is that US Citizen Chinese fully understand China’s recent encroachment and support a strong stance even at their personal sacrifice. I don’t know.)

Like I said, it is complicated.

If you have ever worried about “1984,” “Big Brother,” or government spying, then look no further than a government sponsored messaging service such as WeChat.

A couple of years ago, China mandated that all passwords, all security keys, all VPN credentials must be provided to the mainland Chinese government. This is different than turning them over “upon request.” All credentials had to be proactively provided to the Chinese government. So clearly, China has access to everything sent through TikTok and WeChat. The US government isn’t supposed to have access to data without warrants and process. Of course, there’s been some illegal data collection in the US, but illegal is the operative word. Actually, the laws can be a bit surprising. the US’s Bluffdale facility legally gets every search conducted on Google here in the US without asking.*

So I’ll close with how I opened: I have every reason to believe that TikTok and WeChat are severe security breaches (or potential breaches) for those who use them to interface with China. However, there are few alternatives. We all feel trapped by the need to use them, and the knowledge that doing so is likely unsafe, but have little option to communicate otherwise.

*If the US government wants your search history there are two ways of obtaining it: 1) With a court order only after probable cause is established to a judge, or 2) If Google simply sells it as a commercial product and gets paid. Google’s privacy policy allows it to use the data for “…legal purposes…” which doesn’t mean as required by law. It means for any purpose which is legal.