Apple or WeChat — which would the Chinese choose?

With Trump's executive order prohibiting US "transactions" with China apps TikTok and WeChat, it may be harder for the Chinese to use WeChat on iPhones. But when it comes to making a choice between using WeChat for daily life or sticking with iPhones, which would the Chinese choose?
The logo for Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s WeChat app is arranged for a photograph on smartphones in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. President Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders prohibiting U.S. residents from doing business with the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps beginning 45 days from now, citing the national security risk of leaving Americans' personal data exposed. (Ivan Abreu/Bloomberg)
The logo for Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s WeChat app is arranged for a photograph on smartphones in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. President Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders prohibiting U.S. residents from doing business with the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps beginning 45 days from now, citing the national security risk of leaving Americans' personal data exposed. (Ivan Abreu/Bloomberg)

For Apple fans in China, it may be a tough choice.

On 6 August, citing national security, US President Donald Trump signed executive orders that would prohibit any transaction by any US person or entity with China apps TikTok and WeChat, or their parent companies ByteDance and Tencent. The ban will take effect in 45 days.

In this latest attack on China’s tech companies, TikTok is getting a lot of attention, but its users are mainly outside of China, so the ban does not really affect the Chinese. But the threat to WeChat is another story.

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US President Donald Trump, center left, during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, 3 August 2020. (Doug Mills/Bloomberg)

Some industry players note that after 20 September, even downloading WeChat from the Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store may be considered a “transaction”, meaning that WeChat would be forced “off the shelf”. Android users may still be able to bypass the Google Play Store and install WeChat, but iPhone users may be forced to abandon it.

Chatting and communicating, getting news, sharing photos, shopping, fund transfers and payments, loans and financial management, taking public transport - people use WeChat for all this.

Communication apps from the West, like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram are blocked by the Great Firewall of China, which gives WeChat a monopoly in the China market. And because WeChat also includes many other functions, it has become a cornerstone of China’s digital lifestyle.

In China, people’s lives are practically tied to WeChat. Chatting and communicating, getting news, sharing photos, shopping, fund transfers and payments, loans and financial management, taking public transport - people use WeChat for all this. Exchanging name cards is long passé; now, people scan WeChat accounts to network. And since the coronavirus, people have to use WeChat to track their movements and health status, as a “pass” to get in and out of places.

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A person scans the QR code of the digital payment services WeChat Pay at a fresh market in Beijing, 8 August 2020. (Thomas Peter/REUTERS)

If one day it boiled down to a choice between either Apple or WeChat, which would the Chinese choose?

Those in China’s internet community who are tired of social media and of being tied to WeChat and work 24/7, deadpan that it may not be a bad idea to take the opportunity to delete WeChat — perhaps their happiness index would increase exponentially. Some people excitedly imagine replying to their bosses: “I didn’t reply to your WeChat text because I use Apple.”

“Without Apple, there’s still Huawei. But without WeChat, would my seventh aunt or eighth aunt know how to use Facebook?” - China netizen

However, from surveys that have shown up online recently, most China netizens would pragmatically give up their iPhone for the sake of WeChat, while some would be proud to switch to China brands like Huawei and operating systems like HarmonyOS. Some netizens say: “Without Apple, there’s still Huawei. But without WeChat, would my seventh aunt or eighth aunt know how to use Facebook?” And some others nonchalantly feel this is a throwaway question, because “it is not even certain whether the Chinese can survive without WeChat”.

The wording in Trump’s executive order is unclear. We do not know how far the ban on WeChat will go, or how much room there is for a reversal. Ultimately, this executive order may be just for show, or it could also lead to serious implications.

To a certain extent, this also reflects the harsh reality that no one will emerge a winner from the intense China-US competition.

In the end, Apple Inc, which highly values the Chinese market, could be the one to bear the loss. Market analysts pointed out that iPhone sales in China would drop by 30% should WeChat be removed from its App Store. Apple Inc has been carefully planning its strategy in China for many years. Last year, it even slashed iPhone prices in China. To cater to the Chinese market, its iPhone 12 series releasing this autumn may even support China’s BeiDou navigation system. But once WeChat is removed from its App Store, these efforts to boost Chinese consumer spending would be futile.

Apple Inc is definitely not the only one affected. American enterprises such as Starbucks, KFC, Disney, and McDonald’s that have become highly reliant on WeChat to reach Chinese consumers and provide them with online delivery and booking services could also become the victims of Trump’s WeChat ban. To a certain extent, this also reflects the harsh reality that no one will emerge a winner from the intense China-US competition.

People line up outside the new Apple flagship store on its opening day following the Covid-19 outbreak, in Sanlitun, Beijing, China, on 17 July 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
People line up outside the new Apple flagship store on its opening day following the Covid-19 outbreak, in Sanlitun, Beijing, China, on 17 July 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Most Chinese think that by choosing Huawei and abandoning Apple, they can continue to use WeChat. Not only would they get out of the current China-US battleground unscathed, they could also get to laugh at American enterprises in China that would be indirectly implicated. However, is decoupling in this manner the best solution for China?

To Chinese netizens, choosing between Apple and WeChat could be simple. Yet, in the face of a problem of the century like the China-US competition, the answer is not so clear-cut any more.

From the ZTE Corporation and Huawei incidents, to the TikTok and WeChat battles, Chinese tech companies have been increasingly suppressed by the US. On 5 August, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expansion of its Clean Network programme to further contain Chinese tech companies in the areas of software, hardware, services, and operations. Clearly, just as China is building a firewall, the US hopes to join forces with other countries to exclude China’s high-tech industry from the international digital economy.

China has a large domestic market. Over the years, internet giants like Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba have created an internet ecosystem that abides by official regulatory and review requirements to cater to the basic needs of the Chinese people. However, faced with Trump’s technical iron curtain against China, is China really going to decouple as its opponent hopes? Will it give up on external engagements and beat a retreat to a closed market, or will it instead respond to the containment with an open attitude and break through the iron curtain to connect with the larger world? To Chinese netizens, choosing between Apple and WeChat could be simple. Yet, in the face of a problem of the century like the China-US competition, the answer is not so clear-cut any more.

Related: Chinese academics: China must avoid falling into ‘Trump’s trap’ | Will TikTok and China continue to embrace the world despite US pressure? | US wants it banned while the Chinese calls it a traitor. Is this the end of TikTok? | Chinese companies going global? Take heed of TikTok's crisis