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WeChat, China’s most popular app, faces an imminent ban in the U.S., leaving many of its users in a bind.
The White House said Friday it would prohibit WeChat, owned by Beijing-based Tencent, from appearing in U.S. app stores starting Sunday at midnight.
Though WeChat has a comparatively minor U.S. presence, it remains a major conduit for communications between Chinese nationals living abroad and their friends and family back home. The app has an average of 19 million million daily active users in the U.S. versus more than a billion worldwide.
WeChat, called Weixin in China, is effectively the operating system for people’s digital lives in China. They use it to pay for services, hail cabs, go shopping, read news, chat, and more.
For people seeking to bridge the digital divide between the U.S. and China, WeChat is not easily replaced. China’s restrictions on foreign tech outlaws obvious substitutes, such as Facebook’s WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google’s Gmail and Gchat, and chat app Telegram.
While some people based in the U.S. may rush to install WeChat before new downloads become restricted, this is only a stopgap measure. When updated versions of WeChat’s software are released worldwide, U.S.-based users will be unable to update their apps, leaving them vulnerable to hackers.
Here are three alternative apps:
China is a major market for Apple. A substantial part of the iPhone-maker’s supply chain is based there—and so the company has enjoyed some permission to operate where rival tech giants, like Google and Facebook have not.
Apple products come with a native messaging service, iMessage, that remains available in China. The service, which is generally encrypted and private (especially if you turn off iCloud storage), should work over the Internet.
While China has hundreds of millions of iPhone users, not everyone owns one. Other smartphone makers, like Huawei, compete for a share of the country’s 1.4-billion-strong population.
In case your friends and family aren’t in the Apple family, you may consider downloading another chat app called Signal, developed by a nonprofit called Open Whisper Systems.
Signal has been praised by cybersecurity researchers as having best-of-breed encryption. The technology helps keep conversations safe, secure, and private.
You might be using Signal’s tech already and not even even realize it. Facebook’s WhatsApp uses the same underlying software to protect its 2 billion users.
For now, Signal is not banned in China, and its downloads have been surging in the wake of the impending WeChat ban.
Another chat app that may work is Wickr, which can’t be downloaded in China, but it can be brought into the country after being downloaded elsewhere.
The encrypted messaging service uses a VPN-like method to remain operational in nations where it might otherwise be censored. CEO Joel Wallenstrom told tech blog the Verge in 2018 that “people trust very secure stuff to Wickr, and they’re trusting us not only to secure the data but that we’ll get it where it needs to be.”
VPN and video conferencing
There are other options for people living in China to stay in touch with their relations abroad. Some can require some technical know how, like installing a VPN, to circumvent Chinese censorship.
Other options include video conferencing apps, like Zoom, Skype, or Houseparty, the last of which is partly owned by Epic Games, a video game maker partly owned by Tencent.
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