Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

AAPI communities feel impact of TikTok, WeChat bans

The logo for the video app TikTok. It's a stylized depiction of an eighth note.
Matt Slocum
The icon for the video sharing TikTok app is seen on a smartphone, Feb. 28, 2023, in Marple Township, Pennsylvania. Some state and federal lawmakers have pushed to ban the application.

The video app TikTok is banned from use on state government devices in over half of the U.S. as well as on federal devices. President Joe Biden has called for a nationwide ban and cited concerns with user data, and whether it is shared with China's government. The WeChat app is used primarily for instant messaging and has faced government scrutiny and potential bans.

The discussion of TikTok and WeChat bans alienates Chinese Americans — and anyone who looks like they could be — according to Sookyung Oh, the director of the Hamkae Center, an organization that lobbies on issues affecting Asian Americans in Virginia.

“It leaves other immigrant communities wondering, are they going to be the next political scapegoat?” Oh said.

Legislative bans

TikTok, WeChat and other applications developed by Chinese-owned companies such as ByteDance Ltd. or Tencent Holdings Ltd. pose foreign cybersecurity threats, according to the executive order Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed in December 2022.

The platforms threaten potential access to location services, browsing history and control of software that would jeopardize sensitive or personal information if obtained by foreign governments such as the Chinese Communist Party, according to the executive order.

Members of the U.S. Congress have introduced bills and resolutions that would expand the ban from select states to nationwide and increase the scope of the bans and regulations.

The concern is the broader message being implied, Oh said. Oh believes some people will interpret the bans as a reason not to trust Chinese Americans.

“If you can't trust them because they may be the enemy, then how do you treat them?” Oh said. “You wouldn't treat them like a neighbor, right? You would treat them with heightened suspicion and hostility.”

“That's the impact,” Oh added.

Over 30 states have implemented a TikTok ban on state government devices, according to Capital News Service data. Some Florida universities have followed suit, as well as the University of Wisconsin. The congressional Terminate TikTok on Campus Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in January.

Several bills were introduced during the past General Assembly session that imply xenophobic tendencies and specifically target China, according to Oh.

“Even though one could argue that when it comes to national security issues, there are other countries besides China that the U.S. is probably engaged in and monitoring and worried about,” Oh said. “But there are no bills about them, [about] those countries.”

Del. Emily Brewer (R–Isle of Wight) introduced House Bill 2385, which echoed Youngkin’s executive order. It would have limited and prevented companies from conducting business with entities considered foreign adversaries unless otherwise allowed by the Committee on Foreign Investment. Brewer introduced the bill to block foreign entities or threats from penetrating user data and information, she said.

“I do think that China is the biggest threat to U.S. national security. But in preparation for any other important interest and adversary that would threaten our commonwealth or our security, I think it's absolutely important to make sure that we encompass the ability to handle those as we see fit,” Brewer said.

The bill was killed in the Senate’s Finance and Appropriations committee on Feb. 15.

WeChat ban impact

BaoBao Song, assistant professor of public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, wrote in an email that she uses WeChat to communicate with friends, extended family and to speak with her parents every day.

“WeChat is undoubtedly my most used app across all my devices,” Song stated. “I cannot live without WeChat. It is as simple as that.”

Brewer’s bill sends a message that would make Song consider leaving the country.

“This just sends a signal that this country and this society are moving away from its foundation which draws talents from all over the world to the United States,” Song wrote. “This is letting politics and international diplomatic conflicts affect the livability of the country and causing its citizens to suffer.”

Del. Irene Shin (D–Loudoun) is a member of the Virginia Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus. A ban on WeChat will “absolutely” harm Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, Shin said.

“I think that banning an application that is used for community communications, for family communications, for friends to chat on,” Shin said. “I think it will absolutely impact the Chinese American and AAPI community.”

Shin thinks this kind of language and behavior can be detrimental to the targeted communities.

“When you build this rhetoric and use this language that is ‘other-izing’ and demonizing a group of people, I think that inevitably, it leads to racism and xenophobic behaviors,” Shin said.

Cybersecurity risks

Specific cybersecurity issues with Chinese-owned platforms include the possibility for influence operations, information warfare concerns and cyberespionage, according to Christopher Whyte, a homeland security and emergency preparedness assistant professor at VCU.

The Chinese government could use the large volume of TikTok users’ consumer information to target specific individuals who might have access to sensitive intellectual properties or specific control systems. The data can be used from there to execute spear phishing campaigns to gain access and launch more sophisticated cyber operations, according to Whyte.

Spear phishing scams use tactics to look legitimate, such as mocking a real company and calling with specific details about the person, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Over 300,000 phishing-related scams were reported in 2021.

“Data is the new oil,” Whyte said.

Studies in the last two years have shown that 67% of teenagers from age 13 to 17 use the platform, according to the Pew Research Center. Adults age 18 to 29 make up 48% of TikTok’s viewers.

“China is really obsessed with data,” Whyte said. “Data fuels their view of the rest of the world.”

Political analyst Bob Holsworth doesn’t see an issue with lawmakers banning TikTok on federally issued devices. The controversy arises when political leaders want to completely eliminate the platform for users who enjoy the application, he said.

The issue with TikTok is whether the CCP can access a user’s personal data, which the executives of the platform say they can prevent. However, lawmakers in both parties are skeptical, according to Holsworth.

“On the other hand, you have millions of users that are not simply in the AAPI community, that are everywhere, especially young people who are using it every day and so that seems to me to be the controversy,” Holsworth said.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew addressed these concerns during a March congressional hearing. There is no evidence that the Chinese government has access to user data from American servers, he said.

TikTok made a commitment to move its data into the U.S. to be overseen by an American company and personnel to ensure data protection, Chew said at the hearing.

“The question then becomes, is this seen by people in the AAPI community as a, simply a part of geo-political controversy or is it seen as an attack on the community?” Holsworth said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture.