WeChat logo. Photo illustration: AFP / Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto

The legal team Chinese tech and social-networking giant Tencent put together to steer WeChat amid China-US tensions expects its work to continue, despite US President Joe Biden dropping some bans on the app. 

Chinese state media say the Biden administration would risk being “unfriended” by the five million American users of the messaging and social media app if it upheld the “antisocial” policies from his predecessor Donald Trump.

Biden has dialed back bans and restrictions applied by Trump since 2019, when the former administration tried to pull the chat app from Tencent and other popular Chinese applications off American app stores on national security grounds.

Trump’s move sparked political anger and social media tirades between both countries, souring ties further. 

The latest move means Americans, in particular the huge Chinese diaspora in the US, can continue to download and use WeChat, short-video app TikTok and many others without wondering if they are breaking any law.

The fear has been there for nearly a year after their favorite apps got embroiled in geopolitics, even though Trump’s orders were held up in legal wrangles and by court injunctions during his waning days as president.

The US WeChat Users’ Alliance, founded by five American Chinese lawyers for a federal court challenge against Trump’s executive orders, said Biden sent the right message to respect the First Amendment about freedom of speech because WeChat bans were not narrowly tailored to address the government’s interest in national security.

The QR payment code for Wechat Pay (R) sits beside a book about Chinese President Xi Jinping at a newsstand in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

Over the weekend, many Chinese at home and abroad took to WeChat to hail Biden’s conciliatory move, with accounts attributed to the American leader cropping up soon after he reversed Trump’s bans.

Yet Tencent appeared to be far less upbeat about WeChat’s outlook in the US. In a short statement issued via its PR agencies, the company stressed its strict compliance with Chinese and foreign laws and willingness to connect with watchdogs to resolve remaining issues. 

The Securities Times, a publication supervised by Beijing mouthpiece the People’s Daily and based in Tencent’s home city of Shenzhen, revealed this week that on top of more resources for a dedicated elite legal department for the app’s compliance issues at home, the WeChat parent had been on a hiring spree in the US to boost the ranks of its PR and legal teams at its US headquarters in Palo Alto in California, with some lobbyists poached from Facebook and Google. 

Eric Mer, an associate professor with the Peking University’s School of Governance, told Asia Times that WeChat and TikTok were not entirely out of the woods yet because when Biden revoked and replaced Trump’s orders, he also vowed to step up scrutiny of applications and programs developed by America’s “foreign adversaries” like China or entities under their control, with a criteria-based decision framework and rigorous, evidence-based analysis.

He said Tencent would soon have to do more to comply with Washington’s wish for more oversight over how WeChat and the like would store and handle Americans’ sensitive data and neutralize security risks.  

“Tencent may still be on a learning curve to acquire more knowledge of the inner workings of Washington’s sprawling bureaucracy of compliance and national security so job number one for the company, when Biden has granted a de facto reprieve for WeChat, is to sign up more lobbyists and legal experts in the US,” said Mer. 

“Unlike Trump’s spur-of-the-moment bans, Biden’s future ‘evidence- and criteria-based’ actions against WeChat and its peers may not be so easily challenged or overthrown in courts.”

TikTok was given some breathing space by a judge after being hit by US bans. Photo: AFP

Biden has kept in place Trump’s May 2019 orders about a national emergency to enable the Department of Commerce to evaluate foreign adversary connected software applications and take action.

One potential source of more legal battles or even renewed sanctions could be how WeChat stores and manages the deluge of data and sensitive transaction and research information from its growing user base across the US. On top of the Chinese expats there, more Americans of other ethnicities as well as corporations and tertiary institutions are opening accounts to better connect with the Chinese population. 

Tencent’s WeChat CEO Zhang Xiaolong revealed last year that the US was the app’s largest market outside mainland China. 

Storing the data in a third country, as is still the common practice at WeChat, may fall into the US category of threats to its information and communications technology and services supply chain. 

It is said that Tencent is now selecting a US site to host servers and key elements of its overseas data management, but it is also assessing the option to outsource the work to an American service provider. Tencent also announced a plan this month to expand the capacity of cloud-based data centers across Bangkok, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Tokyo. 

The WeChat team did not respond to inquiries about whether any future US center would store local data and under what circumstances data of a WeChat user outside mainland China would be transmitted to servers in its home base of Shenzhen or elsewhere across the country. 

Michael Bien, an attorney for the US WeChat Users’ Alliance that said it had no links with Tencent, stressed to reporters that the continuous availability of a messaging app indispensable to millions of Americans was vital.

The Trump administration said apps such as WeChat were a security risk. Photo: Facebook

He said it would be Tencent’s job to work out new strategies to align WeChat with the Biden administration’s new requirements and that all WeChat users would welcome more data and privacy protection.

Meanwhile, Beijing has reportedly been nudging Tencent to further align and unify its management of the two different versions of WeChat catering to mainland Chinese and overseas users for “greater conformity to Chinese data and security laws.”

Beijing has updated directives for outreach to and guidance for private firms with international stature, part of the broader follow-the-party’s-lead campaign in the run-up to the centenary of the Communist Party this July. 

While admitting that mainland users will be subject to Chinese laws governing national security and cybersecurity, WeChat has steered clear of requests for more clearance on data and privacy protection for overseas users. Many WeChat users switch to other apps when discussing sensitive topics due to surveillance concerns.