Having failed to complete a huge wall along the U.S. southern border, President Donald Trump’s administration now seems desperate to build one in cyberspace for similar spurious reasons.
Whereas the bogeyman four years ago was a supposed influx of drugs and criminals from Mexico, the U.S. announced early Friday that Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s instant-messaging app WeChat will essentially be shut down in America from Sept. 20 because of some vague notion that it poses an immediate threat.
In announcing the move, which also includes a ban on ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok to go in effect Nov. 12 unless it resolves its pending issues, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made it sound as if there was incontrovertible evidence of their nefarious nature.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the U.S.,” Ross said in a statement.
That’s not quite true.
There’s no doubt that Beijing, its governing Communist Party and the nation’s military and intelligence services have waged sustained cyberoffensives against the U.S. and dozens of other countries. This year alone, two Chinese hackers were accused of attempting to pilfer coronavirus research across 11 countries, while more than 100 targets are thought to be among victims in a sophisticated infiltration scheme outlined by the U.S. this week.
But the evidence against WeChat is lacking. The app offers services that are roughly akin to an amalgam of Facebook, Venmo, Instagram, Twitter and Postmates. Its core feature is messaging, similar to Whatsapp. And yes, it collects data. Reams of it. As does Facebook, Google, Microsoft and even Oracle.
In the U.S., WeChat is largely used by the Chinese diaspora. And it’s quite probable that a small segment of those users oppose the U.S., its democratic system of government and maybe even communicate their plans over chat. In truth, an even bigger risk to the freedoms for which the U.S. stands is that Chinese dissidents in America might use the app and Beijing most likely tracks them. A third concern is that the Communist Party’s increasingly heightened censorship regime is being deployed on WeChat at the expense of American citizens (largely of Chinese ethnicity) entirely within U.S. borders.
And yet, any such manipulation or data infiltration pales in significance to that already perpetrated against entirely American institutions like Facebook and Twitter.
Instead of stamping out any threats posed by the Chinese government, which do exist, the U.S. administration has simply handed Beijing another item to add to its folio of propaganda that paints the U.S. as a belligerent and hypocritical regime.
Just as Chinese officials can use examples of U.S. police officers killing unarmed Black men as a counter to Washington’s allegations of human rights abuses in Hong Kong and against Uighurs, they now have this unnecessary WeChat ban as proof that the U.S. isn’t an open freedom-loving nation after all.
The predictable reaction from Beijing will also be hypocritical. It’s true that thousands of Chinese in the U.S. will struggle to communicate directly with friends and family back home once WeChat access is shut off. But that’s only because more ubiquitous options in the U.S. — Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter — have already been banned by China.
A U.S. move to shut WeChat, and possibly TikTok, still pales in comparison to the Great Firewall that Beijing has had in place for more than a decade.
And that’s why this move will prove to be so desperate and ineffective. It won’t stop teams of state-sponsored hackers from infiltrating corporate and government networks, nor prevent manipulation of America’s open internet and independent media. But it will provide fodder for the growing belief that the U.S. truly is no better than any authoritarian state seeking to clamp down on the free flow of information in the name of national security.
Like that barrier along the Mexican border, this virtual wall against China will have untold costs and little benefit.
Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.