When the White House announced a new executive order
Thursday, for once it had nothing to do with student visas.
But the new proclamation, which would restrict the Chinese-owned social-media apps TikTok and WeChat, could have an enormous impact on Chinese students studying in the United States.
To call WeChat just another app minimizes its centrality to Chinese life. People use it to talk, to shop, to share photos and videos, to get news, to pay their bills. It’s almost impossible to get by in China without WeChat. Not only is it increasingly an important recruitment tool for American colleges, if you have Chinese students on your campus, it’s often a more-reliable way to reach them here.
For students abroad, WeChat is an essential connection to friends and family back home, especially now that coronavirus-related travel restrictions means that it may be many months before they can return to China. Frankie Huang, a Chinese-born writer based in the U.S., wrote
about what a possible WeChat ban could mean for the Chinese diaspora:
At a time when international travel is nigh impossible, our digital bonds become all the more precious and vulnerable. For many Wechat users in the U.S., it is the only thing that links them with loved ones they may not have seen for months, and may not know when they can finally reunite with. It is an extraordinary cruelty to sever these links at a time when we must lean on these technologies that span the distance we physically cannot travel.
In issuing the executive order, the Trump administration cited national-security concerns, and those shouldn’t be dismissed. The Chinese government does censor and surveil WeChat; it uses the app to impose social controls at home and to spread propaganda overseas.
At the same time, if the U.S. limits WeChat — at this point, it’s unclear what form restrictions could take — it could untether students from their support system at home. At a time when student morale is at a low ebb, that could be a lifeline that higher ed and students alike could ill-afford to lose.
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