Jan has become paranoid about CCP internet operatives, who are already notorious within China’s firewalled internet. There, they are known as the “50 cent army,” because of the apocryphal 50 cents that they make for every pro-China post. Besides, the CCP is known for its long-standing strategy of using its diaspora communities to help the motherland.

So, Jan wondered, was it really so strange to think that the CCP was targeting people of Chinese descent in the United States? 

“In recent years, the Chinese government has stepped up moves to influence the diaspora communities around the world to advance Beijing’s interests, and the use of Chinese tech is a key component of this influence operation,” says Yaqiu Wang, a China analyst with Human Rights Watch. “One of the biggest victims of China’s authoritarian tech expanding abroad has been the Chinese diaspora.”

Jan has been thinking about leaving WeChat, or at least ceasing to express even the faintest of political opinions (including, ironically, suggestions to leave WeChat). 

But regardless of whether she leaves, she is afraid that the damage has already been done. She’s aware of the US government’s increased scrutiny of Chinese-Americans, which is not limited to the FBI but also includes the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. She is also afraid that she has been connected to potential CCP operatives just by virtue of being in the same WeChat groups. When it comes to Chinese-Americans, she says, the FBI “cannot distinguish between victims, collaborators, and masterminds.” 

Indeed, even before the latest wave of discrimination and hate crimes against Chinese-Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, and before Trump’s stubborn characterization of the disease as the “China virus” or “Kung flu,” anti-China sentiment in the United States had been growing. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, has called China “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property,” saying that a “whole-of-society” response from the United States is required to fight it. 

These kinds of remarks, civil rights advocates say, are already resulting in racial profiling, especially of scientists of Chinese descent. 

Backfiring ban

In late August, a group of WeChat users sued the Trump administration on First Amendment grounds. On September 20, the day the ban would have gone into effect, a judge in California’s Northern District Court granted the apps a preliminary reprieve. Since then, the ban has been making its way through the courts. The next decision is not expected until after the election, which might change everything anyway.