Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is urging the U.S. administration to extend a transaction ban to WeChat’s sister app, QQ, in a bid to counter “hazards posed by high-risk Chinese telecommunications hardware and software.”
Like WeChat, the instant messaging app QQ is developed by Chinese tech giant Tencent.
President Donald Trump on Aug. 6 issued an executive order to ban transactions with ByteDance’s TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat, saying that the apps’ mass harvesting of user data and political censorship pose significant national security risks that call for “aggressive action.”
There has been a significant increase in QQ downloads in the United States since Trump’s order, according to data collected by market analyst firm Sensor Tower.
In a letter to Trump released on Sept. 14, Rubio noted the “identical ownership and similar functions” of WeChat and QQ. These similarities “highlight the common threats that they pose, including data privacy risks, as well as espionage and censorship at the direction of the Chinese government and Communist Party.”
The Shenzhen-based Tencent, along with tech firms ByteDance and Huawei, have faced increased scrutiny internationally for security and privacy concerns related to their products.
Tencent has a long history of complying with the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance apparatus and has a close relationship with the regime.
Pony Ma, Tencent’s founder and CEO, has been a delegate to China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, since 2013.
An internal company list The Epoch Times recently obtained also identified more than 7,700 of its employees to be members of Chinese Communist Party branches that are embedded within its offices across the country. The Tencent Party committee also boasts that it created the first Party journal among Chinese internet firms in 2005.
Another leaked document from state-owned telecom firm China Unicom also revealed how Tencent helped build an app for “Party-building” activities, which usually involves studying Party doctrines to enforce members’ obedience. In Oct. 2017, on the second day of China’s party congress convened once every five years, the company created an app designed to give virtual applause to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity research group at the University of Toronto, recently found WeChat to be monitoring its international users to boost its censorship algorithm.
A number of Chinese dissidents have experienced police admonition, arrests, and other forms of suppression over their posts on Tencent apps, the most notable case being Chinese whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.
The company has received additional pushback in Australia and India. Most recently, India added scores of Tencent-owned mobile game apps to its banned list of over 200, mostly Chinese apps. WeChat was on the first blacklist that India issued in late June.