NEW YORK/PALO ALTO, U.S. -- When Clare Liu heard about U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to ban the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, she immediately thought of her parents.
"WeChat is the main app that I use to chat with my parents in China, now I have to think about an alternative way to contact them," said Liu, 26, a finance professional living in New York, adding that she has tried Skype but it's not as convenient.
Liu was one of many Chinese living in the U.S. who woke up on Friday to a flurry of WeChat posts from friends telling them about alternative ways to keep in touch. Following Trump's executive orders a day earlier that aim to ban U.S. transactions with WeChat, the messaging app owned by Tencent Holdings, and TikTok's owner ByteDance, Chinese Americans and Chinese expats living in America have found themselves in a dilemma.
While WeChat does not have as broad a U.S. user base as TikTok -- of the app's 279 million overseas downloads in the past six years, the U.S. accounted for less than 7%, or 19 million -- it has become an essential tool of personal and business communications for many Chinese living overseas.
The Chinese "super app" can be used for just about every essential function -- text messages, audio calls, video chats, status feeds to keep track of friends' lives, payments, car rides, gaming, shopping, news, dating and more. The multifunctional app has enabled users to engage each other in more ways than just chats, making it almost impossible to replace.
"A lot of games in China are connected to WeChat and many of my friends in the U.S. use it to play games with their friends in China and to keep their gaming records through WeChat," Liu said. "If WeChat is banned, we won't be able to game with our friends in China anymore and we will lose our gaming records."
Mike Cai, 29, a tech professional living in California, echoed her concern over losing a crucial part of their social life.
"Especially during the pandemic, my entire social life is based on WeChat," Cai said. "If WeChat is banned, I have to rebuild my social circle, which needs a lot of extra time and effort. A lot of my friends in China don't use American social media apps, it would be very difficult to restore my social circle on another app."
The executive order prohibits any U.S.-based transaction with Tencent that relates to WeChat, starting in 45 days.
The definition of "transaction" will be clarified by the Secretary of Commerce, also in 45 days, according to the White House announcement. Before then, it is unclear whether using or downloading the apps will be prohibited, according to legal experts.
The opaque scope has boosted optimism among some users that all might not be lost.
A Chinese woman living in New York, who did not want to give her name, said the ban would not affect her much if financial transactions are the focus.
"I've seen a lot of friends posting on WeChat that they're switching apps because it was widely spread last night that we can't use it anymore," she said. "But looking at it more closely, it seems we can still use it to chat with family and friends after the ban."
The U.S. administration has been broadening the scope of its crackdown on Chinese tech. This week the State Department published details of a "clean" network initiative to act against Beijing on a number of fronts, calling for the removal of made-in-China apps from stores and restricting cloud services provided by Chinese companies.
Meanwhile, Trump accused WeChat of becoming tools that Beijing uses to spy on the U.S. and "keep tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives."
Whether WeChat can still be used for communication or not, the ban has stirred frustration and anger in the Chinese community, who have been facing rising anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think Trump is trying to kill off competitors for American companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple," said Liu from New York, noting WeChat's market competitiveness as a super app.
Others pointed out that collateral damage from Trump's trade war with Beijing is getting out of hand.
"Even with the current U.S.-China tensions, I think Trump is punishing the civilians with this WeChat and TikTok ban," said Cai from California. "It's a meaningless strategy."