It’s been a dizzying few weeks for TikTok and WeChat, the Chinese social media apps caught up in a trade war between the US and China.
In the latest twist, a judge temporarily blocked an order from the Trump administration on Sunday, just hours before it would have gone into effect and removed TikTok from US app stores.
With dozens of court updates filed in the last few weeks it can be difficult to keep up – so here’s a closer look at where things currently stand.
Where did this all begin?
On 6 August, Donald Trump published executive orders targeting the viral video app TikTok and messaging app WeChat. The orders declared that the two apps would be blocked from processing transactions for US citizens and from being downloaded in US app stores after 45 days, or on 20 September, due to security concerns. On 14 August, Trump said in a separate executive order that TikTok would face a complete ban if it did not sell to a US company by 14 November.
Lawyers for the Trump administration say it is in the interest of national security to ban TikTok due to links between ByteDance, the app’s parent company, and the Chinese government. A government brief called ByteDance a “mouthpiece” for the Chinese Communist party, and said it was “committed to promoting the CCP’s agenda and messaging”. TikTok has denied these accusations, saying US user data is not processed in China and that the company does not give the Chinese government access to US users’ personal information.
In the order, Trump cited similar concerns for a WeChat ban, saying the app “allow[s] the Chinese Communist party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information”. He also claimed WeChat could be used for disinformation campaigns. WeChat denied these accusations and claimed the ban was racist in nature, saying in a filing that it “singles out people of Chinese and Chinese American ancestry and subjects them and people who communicate with them to disparate treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, national origin, and alienage”.
Asked about the possible ban, Chinese Americans recently told the Guardian that WeChat has been a lifeline connecting them to family and friends in China. “It’s really sad,” said one salon owner in Oakland, California. “I moved here 26 years ago and I have only been able to reconnect with friends and family in China recently because of WeChat. Without it, I will be completely cut off.”
So can we still use WeChat?
WeChat also stood to be removed from the app store on 20 September, meaning the platform would not be able to acquire any new users, and existing users would not be able to download any software updates. Cut off from its users, the app would probably slowly fade away. However, a judge blocked the ban with a preliminary injunction on 19 September.
The judge said that while some Chinese technologies may pose a legitimate national security threat to the United States, as Trump argued in his executive order, “the specific evidence about WeChat is modest”, according to the filing.
Because of this injunction, the ban on WeChat is on hold pending an appeal from the Trump administration. The judge will address this at a 15 October hearing.
What about TikTok?
On Sunday 27 September, a judge blocked an order from the Trump administration that would have removed TikTok from app stores in the US. Carl Nichols, a judge in the United States district court for the District of Columbia, granted an injunction against the order after a hearing on Sunday night, citing the argument from ByteDance that without an injunction it would suffer “irreparable harm”, even if the ban were eventually lifted.
“We’re pleased that the court agreed with our legal arguments and issued an injunction preventing the implementation of the TikTok app ban,” TikTok said in a statement.
The company also pledged to “maintain our ongoing dialogue with the government to turn our proposal, which the President gave his preliminary approval to last weekend, into an agreement.” The Trump administration has not given an indication as to whether it will appeal this injunction.
What ‘proposal’ is TikTok talking about?
Trump said TikTok could evade the ban if it sells US operations to a US company. Initially, Microsoft was seeking to purchase the app, but its bid was denied.
Ultimately, Trump gave preliminary approval to a deal that would sell US operations to US companies Walmart and Oracle. TikTok has more than 100m users in the US, according to court filings.
Is TikTok done yet?
Though the initial ban has been blocked, the Trump administration could appeal it, and the 14 November deadline still looms for ByteDance to finalize a deal.
Details on the deal with Oracle and Walmart are still being ironed out. Under the current agreement, ByteDance will spin off US operations into a new company called TikTok Global. Oracle will serve as a data host for the new operation and hold a 12.5% stake in it. Walmart will hold another 7.5%. But the remaining 80% will be held by ByteDance.
Judge Nichols declined to take action on the broader ban outlined in the initial executive order goes into effect on 12 November – if TikTok cannot finalize a deal with US firms.
To do this, the US could have internet service providers block TikTok usage from US IP addresses, as India did when it banned TikTok, effectively making TikTok unusable.