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  • US President Donald Trump has issued a new executive order targeting WeChat, the widely-used messaging app that drives daily life in China.
  • The order, citing security concerns, would go into effect in 45 days.
  • WeChat is the cornerstone of daily interactions and transactions in China, as it's used for everything from mobile payments to ride-hailing and playing games.
  • But reports have also uncovered how the app has been used to censor and surveil people both inside and outside of China.
  • Visit Business Insider SA's homepage for more stories.

US President Donald Trump is continuing his assault on Chinese-owned tech in America with a new executive order targeting WeChat, the massively popular messaging app that drives daily life in China owned by Tencent – of which the JSE listed Naspers, via holding company Prosus, owns more than 30%.

Trump issued an executive order on Thursday citing national security concerns that is set to go into effect in 45 days. The order would prohibit any transactions related to WeChat by any person - or involving any property - that's under the jurisdiction of the United States. Trump also issued a very similar executive order regarding the social video app TikTok on the same evening.

In the executive order, Trump wrote that, "the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People's Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States."

You may have heard of WeChat, but unless you live in China there's a good chance you probably haven't used it. WeChat, owned by the Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent, has become a daily necessity in China. WeChat essentially is your smartphone in China - it offers the functions of a myriad of apps all rolled into one.

The app launched in 2011, its development spearheaded by Tencent executive Allen Zhang, and now boasts more than one billion daily active users. Facebook, by comparison, said in its most recent earnings report that it hosts 1.79 billion daily active users.

How WeChat works

A citizen uses WeChat to scan a QR code to obtain toilet paper at a public restroom.
Wang Gang/Visual China Group via Getty Images

WeChat is much more than just a messaging app. It's a hub for everything from making payments to playing games, dating, making doctor's appointments, buying movie tickets, and just about everything else you might do throughout your day.

When you open WeChat, you're not just opening one app, you're opening a platform that can run mini-apps that let you do everything from edit photos to search recipes and more.

In 2017, Tencent and China's Ministry of Public Authority even launched a program to create official digital IDs for citizens that would live in WeChat's app.

People in China can even file for divorce over WeChat. Bloomberg's Dune Lawrence, when writing in 2016 about how pervasive WeChat is in China, wrote that not using the app while you're there is like "refusing to wear shoes."

WeChat QR codes are displayed at a grocery store.
S3studio/Getty Images

Messaging, however, is still a huge part of WeChat's usage. In China, you don't take down someone's phone number or receive a business card. Instead, you scan their WeChat QR code.

American tech giants have followed in WeChat's footsteps in some ways. Facebook began turning its Messenger app into a platform for accessing apps like Uber and sending money to friends in 2016.

Apple has also integrated similar functionality into its iMessage app around the same time. The iPhone maker also just announced a new feature in June called App Clips, which will let you access services by pointing your phone at or scanning QR codes on objects in the real world.

Surveillance and security concerns around WeChat

As WeChat has grown in popularity, so have concerns about it being used for government surveillance in China. Reports from from the BBC and The Wall Street Journal have detailed how WeChat has been used for censorship and surveillance.

In June 2019, BBC reporter Stephen McDonell wrote about how he had been locked out of his WeChat account after posting photos from a vigil held in Hong Kong to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. A Wall Street Journal report from 2017 detailed how Chinese authorities snoop on WeChat texts to spot blacklisted words and images.

Back in 2015, the Toronto-based Internet research lab Citizen Lab found that 4% of the 36,000 WeChat posts it examined had been censored, according to The Journal. Citizen Lab has since published more recent research showing that WeChat filters images on its Moments section, essentially its equivalent to Facebook's timeline, that match a list of blacklisted images. A separate report from Citizen Lab that was published earlier this year also suggested that surveillance is occurring on non-Chinese WeChat accounts as well.

In the executive order, Trump writes that WeChat's data collection "threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans' personal and proprietary information."

It's unclear how many people use WeChat outside of China, or in the United States specifically. But app analytics firm Sensor Tower estimates that the app has been installed by approximately 19.3 million people in the US since 2014.

It also remains to be seen whether Trump's executive order is legal or enforceable.

* Business Insider is part of Media24, owned by the Naspers group.

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