On August 6th, my WeChat was flooded with notifications from WeChat groups feverishly discussing a hasty migration to Telegram. Half-awake, I was perplexed, until I realized that President Trump had just signed an executive order to ban the messaging app in the US.
WeChat is the lifeline for many Chinese overseas. When I first moved to the States at the age of 17, WeChat was the only communication tool I had with my family back home. Much more than a chatting app, WeChat has been my only gateway to modern Chinese culture. I can read the latest hot articles, affairs, gossip, policy statements, and watch the latest viral videos to stay current. Without WeChat, oversea Chinese become homeless nomads, estranged from the evolution of our own culture.
The WeChat panic is a tragic and solemn time for us. But for America, it represents a new era—that of the Great American Firewall. Just like its counterpart in China, this new digital barrier is forcing the modern, global internet to do what it always does when it encounters damage—it routes around it. Significantly, in this case, I think that the rerouting will hasten the arrival of Web3. Here’s why.
WeChat is way more than a chat app
Many pundits are saying that the ban will lead more people to privacy-focused encrypted chat apps such as Signal. But I think that misses a fundamental point.
WeChat’s beauty was never its chat function. In fact, the chat function was its least profitable feature for WeChat’s owner, Tencent.
Instead, in China, WeChat is an indispensable superapp whose ecosystem ties together payments, ride-hailing, food ordering, red packet gifting, ticket purchasing, and “mini-programs” such as online dating, meditation, and shopping. When I want to buy my mother flowers for Mother’s Day in China, it’s push-button simple, and instantaneous from my home here in the US.
A ban on WeChat “transactions”–the word is poorly defined in Trump’s executive order so we’re not really sure what he means— could be devastating, not only to end-users, but also to the small businesses that survive on the WeChat platform, both in China and abroad. Presumably, “transactions” are money transfers. That would be a showstopper since many Chinese expats rely on WeChat to purchase, consume and remit.
One of the Wechat alternatives that benefited during the past week was the Korea-based Line. Data shows that its downloads were up 200% during the two weeks of saber rattling prior to Trump’s announcement. While Line is indeed looked upon favorably by Chinese consumers, and while Line does have its own payment scheme, it is banned in China. So it can’t adequately fill the gaping transactional hole that a WebChat ban will cause.
The Chinese diaspora in the US will have a hard time persuading their Chinese family and friends to adopt a new application simply to chat with them, especially given its illegal status in China. Yes, both sides can VPN to use the app, but if banks and credit cards are barred from backing up money transfers, this is a dragon that cannot breath fire.
Make WeChat a ‘super dapp’
But crypto, especially dapps, can step in to fill the void. Crypto, by nature, is borderless and censorship-resistance. It can be a perfect use case for those who want money flow that cannot be easily banned in an executive order. Of course, it will still require users to on-ramp from fiat to crypto first, but once that step is done, users can swim in an ocean of free trade without fire walls.
And here is an even more tantalizing possibility to consider: What if WeChat becomes an ecosystem to host dapps?
WeChat’s wallet could easily function as a crypto wallet which would enable users to engage in money transfer, trade, even use to buy avatars for game characters. We can assume that many people in the U.S. will VPN to WeChat anyway, for chat and red envelope gifting and so on. Adding its own crypto wallet (or even allowing wallet providers to connect) is a no brainer, and would allow people to get around any ban on “transactions.”
It’s like embedding the whole web3.0 into the WeChat ecosystem.
The road ahead
Of course, challenges also exist. The first and biggest one might be whether WeChat would even go for this idea.Or maybe it would only allow crypto solutions that are “approved” by it, which makes one wonder how decentralized and censorship-resistant this solution would be.
But for now, just like in China, when U.S. citizens want to use apps banned by the government, we will likely see a mass adoption of VPNs. And this behavioral change will not be difficult, especially since most Chinese expats are already accustomed to using VPNs when they travel back to China.
When China initially built its Great Firewall to fend off democratic information from entering the country, I bet it never thought it could get banned for the same reason by the U.S. as well. As the world constructs more walls, both physically and digitally, the case to have a web that’s free from segregation is only growing stronger.
After, family cannot be separated no matter where they are. They will find a way to dispatch those red packets.