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A World Without WeChat: Can #IntlEd Survive?
UPDATE: September 18, 2020:
As of September 18, 2020, the United States Commerce Department has confirmed that it will move forward with a ban on transactions between U.S. businesses and WeChat and TikTok.
Beginning Sunday September 20, the apps will no longer be available on Google or Apple-hosted app stores.
The two Chinese-owned companies will have until November 12th to sell control of their American operations before American firms are barred from providing internet and cloud sources to them, possibly rendering them unusable in the country.
What does this ban look like for international education? We took an in-depth look for you below:
Imagine most of the apps on your phone vanished - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, PayPal, Uber - and were replaced with just one - WeChat. Impossible to avoid while doing business with China, WeChat’s future in America is in doubt after a surprise executive order from the White House on August 6th.
What Is WeChat?
Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, appears to be the latest casualty in the Trump administration’s escalating tech war against China. Citing national security concerns, last Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively banned WeChat in America in 45 days, unless the app’s American operations were sold to an American firm.
Is This the Same as the TikTok Ban?
It’s very similar. On the same day, President Trump issued a second executive order, forbidding Beijing-based TikTok from operating in the country if American operations weren’t sold within the same 45-day period.
What Does This Mean?
No one is sure. The executive order was vague, banning financial transactions with Tencent, or, "any transaction that is related to WeChat" made by any person or "any property" subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
The ban could be symbolic, given WeChat’s small market share in America. It could take many forms: a ban on new downloads of the app, its removal from app stores, the prevention of the app from being used on American servers, or American businesses being penalized for doing business on the platform.
The ban could also affect much more than WeChat: Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, just became much more complicated to do business with, which has the potential to affect more than just WeChat.Tencent holds:
Ownership of the development company behind League of Legends
A 40% stake in the creators of Fortnite
The 5-year right to stream NBA games in China
A production stake in Hollywood blockbusters like Wonder Woman and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick
A 12% stake in Snapchat
A 10% in Universal Music Group
A 9% stake in Spotify.
How Will This Affect Education?
WeChat's popularity and convenience means many schools use it as a primary method of communication in China. Messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are blocked in China and email isn't a commonly-used form of communication; a ban on WeChat could force schools to look elsewhere to connect with current and prospective students, parents and alumni.
WeChat allows organizations to create official, verified channels (微信公众号) where schools can post content for student followers to receive updates from schools. As of 2019, there were 20+ million of these B2C Official Accounts.
With annual fees of 300 RMB (~$43 USD) for a domestically-registered account, and $99 USD for a foreign-held account, WeChat official pages are a crucial platform for sharing school information and changes, especially as 77% of school websites have admissions information unavailable using Chinese internet.
A ban could block American companies from communicating through official WeChat accounts, which would deny schools access to arguably the most critical communication channel in Chinese education market.
How Will This Affect Chinese Students in America?
This ban will make direct communication with ordinary Chinese citizens more challenging than ever, and potentially leave the 360,000 Chinese students in America without a reliable connection to their families back home. The popularity of WeChat Pay’s platform also means that students who rely on the app to receive money from back home will be left in the lurch.
Relations between China and the US were already tense before the ban, but with the added challenges of communication and banking, Chinese students may look to countries with friendlier relations with their home country. Parents, key decision-makers in their student’s study-abroad decisions, may follow suit, worried that lawmakers could cut off vital ties between them and their children.
What Can Schools Do?
With so much of the Chinese internet blocked by filters, WeChat is one of the last few bridges that directly connects Chinese students with the rest of the world.
There are alternative methods of digital communication in China, though none as far-reaching as WeChat:
Weibo: A Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter with 413 million+ users.
Agents: Agents can support Chinese recruitment as well as manage a variety of Chinese-language platforms like Sogou and Baidu, both Wikipedia-esque platforms.
Online Recruitment Platforms: Many of these services are paid, but allow you to host webinars, connect staff and agents to Chinese students and highlight key information.
eduFair China: A free English-language student recruitment platform connecting Chinese students with international education opportunities. All content on the platform is school-controlled and available on and optimized for Chinese internet. With offices in Europe and North America, eduFair acts as a bridge between Chinese students and the resources they need to make informed study abroad decisions.
The potential outcomes are grim. With eye-for-an-eye politics becoming par for the course in recent US-China relations, banning WeChat will effectively cut off individual and business communication between two of the world’s most influential nations.
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