UPDATE: Since this story was published, a preliminary injunction released Sunday by the U.S. District Court of Northern California placed a temporary hold on the federal government's plans to ban WeChat in response to a lawsuit that claimed blocked access to the app would violate the First Amendment.
The popular Chinese-owned mobile app WeChat, which has been the main communications lifeblood for local Mandarin-speaking Chinese Americans, could see a mass exodus of its users after the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that as of Sunday the app will be banned from U.S. mobile app stores.
"I would say over 90% of communications for the Chinese-immigrant community is on WeChat," said Debra Cen, 56, a Palo Alto resident who spearheaded many local Chinese American groups, aided by the app. "It's the main communication tool."
At its core, WeChat is a messaging app. But since its release in 2011, it's grown to become an all-in-one platform — similar to Facebook — where an estimated 1 billion global users, mostly Chinese, shop, share news, talk with overseas relatives and even send digital red envelopes filled with money.
In Palo Alto, with hundreds of Chinese American residents already on the messaging app, WeChat was a free and easy way for Cen to stir more interest in a Chinese New Years Fair in 2016 or, when the COVID-19 pandemic initially created concerns of mask shortages, quickly mobilize an entire community to collect and donate 50,000 masks.
But now, Cen and the other 500 to 600 people she has on her contact list, are planning a mass exodus from the popular mobile app after a ban was announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"It would change the dynamic of our groups," Cen said.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross cited national security concerns in banning WeChat, along with TikTok, a popular short-form video platform. Both apps are some of the largest Chinese-owned tech products, and both were recently accused of posing national security threats in Aug. 6 executive orders from President Donald Trump over their alleged nefarious data collection practices.
"Today's actions prove once again that President Trump will do everything in his power to guarantee our national security and protect Americans from the threats of the Chinese Communist Party," Ross said in a statement released Friday morning.
The ban, which goes into effect Sunday, would remove both products from U.S. mobile app stores, barring any new users from downloading the app.
For current WeChat users, the effects of the order will be immediate. Starting Sunday, users of the app will not be able to send any payments to, for example, family members or businesses. And without the ability to host WeChat on mobile app stores, the company won't be able to roll out new updates or bug fixes for the app's functionality. Eventually, this could render the app unusable.
Though Cen doesn't personally use it to communicate with many relatives overseas, she became fond of the app as a critical tool Chinese immigrants often used to better navigate their way through new and unknown communities.
"If someone's looking for a dentist, they can find a recommendation on WeChat," she said. "It's like having a consultant, 24/7."
For Monica Yeung Arima, 63, a semi-retired real estate agent who was born in Hong Kong, WeChat has, in the past, not only been a useful messaging tool for some of her international volunteer work, but also, more recently, a critical source for accurate information during the pandemic.
"I pretty much open it everyday," Yeung Arima said. "It's sort of like a mini-Facebook."
But the app and its Chinese-ownership are not without criticism even from its own past and current users.
For the exact opposite reason Yeung Arima might turn to the platform for up-to-date facts, Randolph Tsien, 53, who was born in Taiwan and now lives in Palo Alto, said he gradually phased out of using the app for, at one point, "hours" each day after he saw it become a toxic environment of misinformation.
"When you read too much of that, your head kind of bloats and you get a headache," Tsien said.
The app also has been known to be a major vehicle for Chinese state propaganda. For most older Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S., that could mean the difference between viewing the ban on the app as a significant loss or just one minor inconvenience traded to clamp down on pro-Chinese Communist Party views.
For Cen, it complicates the issue.
"To some families, losing WeChat could be devastating," Cen said. One of Cen's colleagues, who asked not to be named in this story, said he regularly spoke to his 80-year-old parents during the weekends using WeChat. But he also thinks the U.S. ban might open up more social media platforms between Chinese Americans and, particularly, mainland Chinese users.
Cen, who noted that she's a naturalized citizen and upholds democratic values of free speech, said she supports any move that could push the Chinese government to be "more open" and further facilitate an environment of free speech in China.
But on Twitter, the American Civil Liberties Union contends that the ban on WeChat is a violation of the First Amendment and reflects "Trump's xenophobic and racist agenda."
The alternatives for U.S. citizens who want to communicate with people in China are limited, aside from QQ, another instant messaging app owned by the same tech giant behind WeChat, TenCent Holdings. (TenCent's U.S. headquarters are located in Palo Alto.)
For Tsien and Cen, the immediate impacts of the ban, at most, pose minor inconveniences. Cen said she and her multiple groups of 500 people — the capacity limit the app places on group chats — will probably migrate to Telegram, which has been reported to be a useful "refuge" for WeChat users. (The app is currently banned in China, but some users have found ways to jump the government's internet firewalls to spread accurate information about COVID-19, according to the South China Morning Post.)
"Since people are already so well connected, we will cope," Cen said.
While the new restrictions will be immediate for WeChat, the same prohibitions on TikTok won't go into effect until Nov. 12.
The video platform, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, recently accepted Oracle, a Redwood City-based software company, as its tech partner, which could result in the transfer of some of the ownership and potentially help the company avoid a U.S. ban.