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User Coalition Fights To Keep Chinese App WeChat In U.S. Market

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump recently issued an executive order that would effectively ban the Chinese app WeChat in the United States starting in September. The order says the app poses a threat to national security, but there's a coalition of users who are trying to intervene. Here's NPR's John Ruwitch.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Clay Zhu practices corporate and commercial law in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of his clients are Chinese, and they all use WeChat.

CLAY ZHU: So I maintain and develop clients through WeChat all the time. I probably spend two or three hours on WeChat every day.

RUWITCH: It's also how he communicates with his sister, an 85-year-old mother back in China's Hunan province.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ZHU: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: When Trump issued the executive order, Zhu and other lawyers who also serve the Chinese-speaking community were alarmed. They discussed it - in a WeChat group, naturally - and decided to fight it in court. So they set up a nonprofit called the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance. Ying Cao is one of the lawyers from the WeChat group. She says they plan to file a suit in the coming days. The group, she says, has no connection to the Chinese government or Tencent, the Chinese company that owns WeChat.

YING CAO: We are not interested in the politics behind this. But when the government tries to resolve a problem, they should try to minimize the harm.

RUWITCH: The executive order is the latest in a string of measures the Trump administration has taken against China in recent weeks. It prohibits, quote, "transactions" with WeChat and Tencent. The term is open to some interpretation, but legal experts expect that app stores, at the very least, will have to remove WeChat. Angus Ni is a lawyer in Seattle.

ANGUS NI: The executive arm is well within its rights to determine that something is or is not a threat to American national security. But its reasoning, especially when its actions have such a negative impact on such a racially kind of based minority needs to be well-justified and well-supported.

RUWITCH: China's so-called great firewall blocks many Western communication and social media apps, making WeChat indispensable. But WeChat censors sensitive messages, and like every other app in China, it would be required to hand over information should the government ask.

RON DEIBERT: There are definitely major security risks to people using those technologies, and we need to address that. I just wish it was done differently.

RUWITCH: Ron Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab, an Internet watchdog at the University of Toronto.

DEIBERT: What the Trump administration did is - the way I think of it - kind of like a nuclear option.

RUWITCH: Fighting it in court will be tough, though. Bobby Chesney is a national security law expert at The University of Texas.

BOBBY CHESNEY: Oh, it's a hugely uphill battle.

RUWITCH: He says it'll be hard to win a case arguing that the executive order curtails free speech, came without due process or amounts to the government taking away property or livelihood. The same holds for a case that says the government hasn't supplied enough evidence of the risks that WeChat poses.

CHESNEY: A judge isn't ultimiately going to save them, but maybe that somehow helps them in a different court.

RUWITCH: Bringing a suit raises the profile of the issue and just might influence how the government interprets the word transaction and ultimately enforces the order.

(SOUNDBITE OF KITCHEN AMBIENCE)

RUWITCH: If the legal challenge doesn't pan out, businesses like Wang Xing's restaurant chain Easterly will have to make major adjustments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I called in about combination lo mein...

RUWITCH: The Hunan-style eatery offers group deals, takes orders and stays in touch with thousands of customers in the Bay Area through WeChat. With no dining-in because of the pandemic, Wang says Easterly is even more reliant on WeChat.

WANG XING: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: For now, he says, they are scraping by. Without WeChat, he fears Easterly will lose business and its connection to its customers.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Santa Clara, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.