US court to hear legal challenge against Donald Trump’s WeChat ban


A group of users of the messaging app say the president’s executive order is unconstitutional and discriminates against Chinese-Americans. US Department of Justice says WeChat users will not face civil or criminal penalties. — SCMP

A US district court in San Francisco will on Thursday hear a legal challenge filed by some US-based WeChat users against President Donald Trump’s executive order barring transactions with the Chinese messaging platform.

The US WeChat Users Alliance as well as other plaintiffs who say they rely on the messaging app for work, worship, or communication, are trying to stop enforcement of the order, which takes effect on Sunday.

It is not clear if there will be a ruling at the hearing but Michael Bien, one of the lawyers for the group, said the judge could indicate whether either party would have to appeal.

Trump issued an executive order in August aimed at WeChat and Chinese-owned video app TikTok, saying they posed a threat to US national security and foreign policy.

The order gave US companies and individuals 45 days to halt “transactions” with WeChat, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross set to introduce specific measures on the ban on Sunday.

But on Sept 16, the US Department of Justice said in a court filing that WeChat users would not face civil or criminal penalties.

The Justice Department said the Commerce Department did not intend to target persons or groups who used or downloaded WeChat to send or receive personal or business information.

WeChat has roughly 19 million daily active users in the United States, most of them of Chinese descent.

Bien said people in the US used WeChat to communicate, read news, and practise their religion, activities that were protected by the US Constitution.

He also said the order discriminated against Chinese-Americans, many of whom relied on the platform and would struggle to use another platform because they were not proficient in English.

“They use it for everything, and it’s a super app that you can do almost anything on it,” he said.

“We think the harm is very extreme and the benefit for the government of banning WeChat is not clear.”

Angus Ni, another lawyer representing WeChat users, said this was the first time the federal government had targeted the main platform of communication for a minority.

“It’s just outrageous,” Ni said. “The order singles out a racial group for discrimination and this is something that no prior government has ever done.”

But in a filing on Sept 8, the defence said the plaintiffs’ claims could not be justified because they were largely based on speculation about the likely impact of an order that had not yet finalised.

It added that the plaintiffs’ allegations of injury failed to establish any non-speculative irreparable harm.

Apart from the US WeChat Users Alliance, the plaintiffs include a US citizen who lived in China for five years but maintains links with the country, a Chinese citizen who founded a non-profit organisation to support high school students in her hometown in China, and a Chinese citizen who runs an online retail business.

Elaine Peng, founder and president of the California-based Mental Health Association for Chinese Communities, said that one of her WeChat groups had about 500 people.

“We added them one by one and we spent five to six years to gather these 500 people. We can’t move them to other platforms in two months,” she said.

Peng said they also use WeChat to communicate with people in mainland China. In April, they invited psychologists who had been to the central province of Hubei during the coronavirus outbreak to counsel members in the US.

She said it would be inconvenient for many Chinese-Americans to move to other platforms, because WeChat was one of the few accessible platforms in China and many people could not use social media with an English interface.

“I hope we can get a preliminary injunction. The Justice Department’s statement is already a small victory for us,” Peng said. – South China Morning Post

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