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US-China tensions

US court to rule on possible block of WeChat ban Saturday

Downloads of the messaging app surge before Trump order takes effect Sunday

A group of WeChat users in the U.S. is taking the government to court Sept. 19 over President Donald Trump's executive order targeting the app. (Source photos by Reuters and Getty Images)

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- A federal court in San Francisco has set a hearing for 1:30 p.m. local time Saturday on whether to issue a preliminary injunction to block the Trump administration's ban on WeChat, the Nikkei Asian Review has learned.

A decision on the preliminary injunction is expected before the WeChat ban takes effect Sunday.

On Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department released a statement that clarifies what "transactions" will be prohibited in the U.S. under the executive orders targeting Chinese-owned social media apps TikTok and WeChat.

Among other prohibited transactions, TikTok and WeChat will be banned from U.S. app stores starting Sunday. Users will be unable to download or upgrade the apps. For WeChat, use of certain functions including money transfer or mobile payment no longer will be allowed in the U.S. 

A group of U.S.-based WeChat users challenged the executive order in a northern California federal court last month shortly after it was announced. The group had its day in court Thursday, but the judge did not decide whether to grant their request for a preliminary injunction.

In light of the Commerce Department's announcement Friday, the court held an emergency hearing today. But the judge said the plaintiffs need to refile a complaint before she can rule on the possible block, as the announcement has changed the "fact landscape" of the case. The new hearing is set for Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, downloads of the Chinese messaging apps surged after the Commerce Department's announcement Friday morning. WeChat's rank among all U.S. free iPhone apps climbed quite considerably from No. 1,385 at the start of the morning to No. 100 as of noon, which indicates that there's been an uptick in installs, according to market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. 

The Justice Department said in a court filing Wednesday that President Donald Trump's executive order to ban transactions with WeChat, the messaging app owned by China's Tencent Holdings, will not target everyday users of the app.

"Despite the public 'assurances' provided by the Department of Justice to the court on Wednesday that individual users will not be affected, the U.S. government is banning WeChat completely," the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit group that leads the lawsuit by users against the ban, said in a statement Friday.

The users alliance and other plaintiffs alleged that Trump's executive order violates the U.S. Constitution and represents a misuse of power granted by the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which the president invoked to issue the ban.

"Parties seeking to enjoin the implementation of President Trump's executive order concerning WeChat -- whether users or the platform itself -- have extremely robust legal arguments on their side, arguments that should be familiar from similar challenges to the president's 'travel bans' or new questions regarding citizenship on the U.S. census," said Nicholas Howson, a Pao Li Tsiang Professor of Law at the University of Michigan.

"Those arguments are grounded in U.S. constitutional law, including equal protection and First Amendment or free speech concerns -- the power of the U.S. government to act in this way without a legislative mandate and pursuant to remarkably thin 'national security' justifications, notwithstanding," Howson said.

However, "because this is directed at a platform associated with the People's Republic of China, there remains a question in my mind as to whether our federal courts are able to navigate an environment soaked in the 'China threat' hostility fanned by the administration in recent years, and properly enjoin the implementation of the executive order in its present form," he added.

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