TikTok 2.0: Tencent’s WeChat and Epic Games Present the Same Threats as TikTok – But Without the Scrutiny (Yet)

On Friday, we blogged about efforts to restrict TikTok, calling it the “greatest Trojan Horse in history.” You can read that blog HERE.

Today we present Tencent, a Chinese digital media and entertainment behemoth that presents similar security risks as TikTok, but has mostly flown under the radar as a threat to the United States.

It shouldn’t any longer.

Tencent is China’s largest tech company and one of the largest companies in the world based on market capitalization—ranking as the 25th most valuable company in the world as of January 2024, by one measure. It has ownership stakes in hundreds of entertainment, media, and communications products and companies throughout the world, including in the U.S.

As it has done with the entire Chinese tech sector, the Chinese Communist Party has pushed its influence deep into Tencent. According to a former CIA senior official, Tencent received seed funding from the Chinese Ministry of State Security in its founding era (around 1998), in hopes that the company would help build the “Great Firewall” designed to cut off free and open internet access in China. One Chinese technology website claims that there are more than 7,000 Chinese Communist Party members working at Tencent, a full 23% of its workforce. In October 2023, China took a “golden share” in a Tencent subsidiary. According to Reuters, this was evidence of China “stepping up its control over its tech sector.”

Tencent is also subject to the same patchwork of Chinese laws that demand the company’s cooperation with whatever the CCP defines as a national security imperative. A 2020 article in Foreign Policy included Tencent as one of the tech giants “giving China a vital edge in espionage.” One Trump-era national security official quoted in the report said, “Those commercial entities are the commercial wing of the Party…They of course cooperate with intelligence services to achieve the party’s goals.” For example, in 2019, a Dutch hacker revealed that Tencent apps installed on devices at internet cafes were transmitting millions of conversations and corresponding user identities to police stations in China.

Two Tencent products which Americans are free to use are particularly concerning:

  1. WeChat, and its Chinese cousin Weixin, remains the indispensable communication platform for Chinese speakers worldwide, with approximately 1.33 billion monthly active users, including 1.5 million in the U.S.
  2. Epic Games, the publisher of many video games which which Americans enjoy en masse. Among its hit titles is the immensely popular (100 million+ U.S. users) video game franchise Fortnite.

How does Tencent’s control over these technologies present risk to Americans? A few reasons:

We Chat and Epic Games products give the CCP easily accessible channels for collecting Americans’ data.

Unlike TikTok, which tries to hide its connections to China, WeChat freely admits it stores its data  on servers in China. More American data in Beijing’s hands gives the CCP “vast opportunities to target people in foreign governments, private industries, and other sectors around the world—in order to collect additional information they want, such as research, technology, trade secrets, or classified information,” according to William Evanina, former director of the National Counterintelligence Center.

Similarly, Epic Games drew scrutiny from the Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the same agency that is currently reviewing TikTok. CFIUS requested details about Epic’s security protocols for customers’ personal data, raising national security concerns over Tencent’s big ownership stake. While Epic reportedly insists it “doesn’t share user data with Tencent,” the outcome of the Treasury inquiry is either not yet completed or has not been made public, no public Congressional inquiry has yet been opened and Epic refuses to answer questions publicly on the matter.

WeChat—and possibly Epic Games—is a tool of Chinese government surveillance, censorship, and malign influence on democracy.

Numerous U.S. users, especially Chinese Americans, have noted how WeChat spies on them and censors politically sensitive content unfavorable to the CCP. In the words of one Chinese American, “Tencent is the evil helper of a totalitarian government that suppresses freedom of speech and democracy. They delete or block your posts if they think it promotes democracy and challenges the government. It violates my civil rights as a U.S. citizen. I came to the U.S. for freedom. I thought I escaped from the threat of the Communist Party. But I’m wrong, I still live in terror because Tencent is monitoring my WeChat and may report me to the Chinese authorities.”

Since so much of the content on WeChat platforms is conducted in the Chinese language, the reality that the CCP has used the platform to conduct election interference has been underappreciated by national security officials.  Seth Kaplan has written about the unusual trends in political content seen on WeChat during the 2020 presidential election suggesting Chinese government interference.

Crucially, Freedom House speculates that Tencent’s WeChat electronic payment features may facilitate monitoring of users’ purchases and instigate further censorship cooperation with Chinese police – an important point that must be raised with policymakers and intelligence experts given Epic’s efforts to forgo the existing app-based system.

Dave Aitel and Jordan Schneider have also written about the potential for Epic Games products to serve as platforms for CCP spying on Americans: “Beijing’s access to millions of gamers’ computers gives its spies an unrivaled opportunity to use games to conduct intelligence operations.”

Congress should recognize reality and reinvigorate the political momentum of a few years ago to ban these Tencent products or meaningfully divest ownership of them from Tencent. In the meantime, China Tech Treat will continue to expose the dangers of Tencent products—stay follow us on China Tech Threat on Substack to stay updated.