In recent weeks, the University of California administration published a warning against WeChat, a Chinese social media app popular in the United States, advising students across all nine campuses to exercise caution when using the application. WeChat faces allegations that the Chinese government is using the app to spy on its own citizens who are living abroad. This has sparked confusion and controversy with various students and faculty members at UCR.
UCR distinguishes itself by having a large Chinese international student community (55.5 percent of international students). When asked for their opinion on the WeChat app controversy, several of them expressed skepticism of the warnings. “I’ve been using WeChat everyday to communicate with my friends and family, and I’ve never had to worry about the threat of espionage,” said James Wang, a Chinese exchange student from Zhejiang Province, located near Shanghai.
Jiayang Pan, Wang’s friend, agreed. “I don’t believe any of the spying allegations made against WeChat,” he said. “But even if they are true, I believe that the government is simply trying to keep us safe. There’s nothing to worry about.” Pan also added that he believed that the current trade war and geopolitical tensions between the Trump administration and the Chinese government might be contributing to these “overblown fears.”
Both Wang and Pan acknowledged that back in China, the government does conduct extensive censorship campaigns to root out any kind of political rhetoric considered anti-Chinese or anarchist. Having lived in the country their entire lives, they believe that the censorship is a positive trade-off for lower crime rates and social stability. “If people are getting arrested, it is due to the fact that they’ve committed crimes that have harmed the country, not simply because of what they said online,” said Pan.
Professor Loren Collingwood, who teaches political science specializing in domestic politics, took a sharper tone at the WeChat warnings. “I think it’s extremely important that we do not send the wrong message against international students,” he stated. “Our campus prides itself in being an accepting and tolerating place for immigrants around the world. We should think carefully about the kind of message these targeted warnings send to the international students coming from China. We want students to feel safe at UCR and not get the wrong impression that they are being unfairly singled out.”
On the other hand, WeChat hasn’t escaped criticism amongst the faculty on campus either. Professor Jeremy Busacca, who lectures on international politics and has studied U.S.-China relations extensively, believes that the allegations of spycamming by WeChat should be taken very seriously.
“China has been spying on us for decades now,” Busacca argued. “It’s an open secret in Washington, D.C., but under the Trump administration, it is simply getting more coverage due to the hawkish nature of this president. The ongoing trade war is clearly factoring in to these fears, especially with intellectual property theft happening on a daily basis and forced technology transfers making it especially difficult for American firms to compete with Chinese, state-owned enterprises.”
Busacca admitted that the U.S. government has had a complicated relationship with social media freedom as well. “I certainly acknowledge the reality that the NSA has been spying on American citizens without a warrant, and one can easily make a case on how unconstitutional this behavior is,” he said.
Professor Toby Gustafson, who teaches computer science, encourages all students using apps such as WeChat to exercise more caution in this day and age. “One of the things I always tell my students is to use a VPN to protect their privacy,” Gustafson explained. “However, a VPN won’t really help with WeChat if another government is spying directly through the app. Therefore, my best advice is to only use the app on devices where you do not store a ton of personal or sensitive data.”
Gustafson also believes that the United States is quickly falling behind rivals such as China and Russia in the field of artificial intelligence, space technology and cyber-warfare. “Our government needs to take this threat seriously by investing far more than what they’re currently spending on these areas,” Gustafson warned. “The battlefield for the next world war won’t be fought on land, sea or air — but rather through satellites, electromagnetic grids and robots.”