Guest comment: Digital is most powerful when we use it to connect people, cultures, and brands – to do that the world must be open

From Huawei to TikTok, tensions between the US and China have spilled over onto the digital world. Arnold Ma, founder of Chinese digital agency Qumin, looks at the tricky balance between the need for regulation and harming cultural relations for political reasons.

President Biden’s review of Trump’s ban on Chinese apps such as WeChat will maintain a crucial communications link for the country’s diaspora. But it should also signal an end to the political game-playing that is negatively affecting the lives of ordinary people around the world.

In Chinese culture, Chinese New Year is the single most important day in the calendar to spend time with family. But last month because of Covid, millions of people couldn’t be with their loved ones. Thanks to technology they were still able to see their parents, grandkids and siblings. And for people living outside of China, the main channel for doing that was WeChat.

This provides one of the few links to family back home, as most Western platforms are not available in China. WeChat is ubiquitous in China and is often likened to social media messaging platform WhatsApp, but in fact there is no direct equivalent to what it does –combining messaging, online shopping, payments and numerous other features. In many ways it is more of a ‘Social OS’ (operating system): hosting a vast ecosystem of web services that are integrated with features such a messaging.

Phone calls can’t replicate the instant and casual way people can now stay in touch, despite living thousands of miles apart. For example, it has facilitated a new inter-generational connection – with older people frequently using it to send emojis, videos, articles and photos to their grandkids.

So Trump’s plan to block it was extremely worrying to people in the diaspora. Even more so than the ban on TikTok, which is primarily an entertainment platform. TikTok’s owner ByteDance had also put a workaround in place, agreeing in principle to the sale of a stake in its US operations to a group led by Oracle – a plan that has since been shelved following the Biden review.

Ostensibly the ban on these apps was due to national security concerns. However, many have observed it seemed more driven by the political decision to take a tough line on Chinese companies in the escalating trade war between the two countries. In fact its removal from US app stores was halted by a US judge because of lack of evidence over these claims. But by framing it as a security problem, Trump created a narrative Americans could get behind and that Congress could push through.

So far all the policies and statements from Biden suggest he won’t go easy on China either, although there is every reason to expect his administration will take a more human view of the issue.

In many ways, further regulation of Chinese companies has been a long time coming. After all, China created a successful domestic technology market by putting controls on Western companies. It didn’t technically block them from operating on its soil, but insisted they had to follow Chinese regulations, including demands that technology companies stored data on Chinese servers. So it’s only fair the US creates a similar situation by putting controls on where the data of Chinese companies operating on its shores resides.

No doubt when negotiations are concluded, some Chinese companies will adhere to the new regulatory regime – such as ByteDance which has already indicated its willingness to comply – while others will pull out.

Biden’s pragmatic stance is important, as banning WeChat would only hurt ordinary people and not the company’s business. Indeed, the app’s owner Tencent has reported 1.2 billion users worldwide but said it derives just 2% of its revenue from the US.

Sadly, it’s ordinary people who have often become the collateral damage in the increasingly divisive politics over the last year – something that has gone beyond the usage of apps.

Recent reports have found hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise, with the UN having said racially motivated violence and other incidents against Asian-Americans have “reached an alarming level” across the United States since the outbreak of COVID19.

And in London, one of the most diverse cities in the world, the Metropolitan Police has reported a soaring increase in racist abuse against east and southeast Asian communities over the last year. Every time a politician talks about the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus, it feeds into this climate of hate.

Banning Chinese apps not only cuts people off from their friends and family but it also feeds into a broader mindset of separation, whereby because something (or someone) has Chinese origins it or they are treated with suspicion and hostility.

Digital is most powerful when we use it to connect people, cultures, and brands, and to do that the world must be open. Let’s hope governments and tech companies can play nicely for long enough to allow people to connect in meaningful ways across borders.

By doing so we can then use it to build bridges instead of walls.

By Arnold Ma