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Is WeChat blocking e-wallets of Cubans in China?

The instant messaging service could be implementing the financial blockade imposed by the US against Cuban entities and individuals.

Mar 4, 2019 by A. Alfaro
Is WeChat blocking e-wallets of Cubans in China?

Several Cuban nationals living in China have found their WeChat Wallets blocked since December 2018. The app rarely blocks a user’s electronic wallet, unless there is a security risk, suspicious activity or a change in personal information.

Pablo, who prefers to go by his first name, said he had transferred all his savings from his bank to WeChat wallet after he lost his ATM card. “I found the card and reversed the transaction. A day later I received a message from WeChat saying that my account had been blocked indefinitely. Soon I heard that at least 10 other Cubans had been blocked without having conducted a similar transaction,” he said.

It couldn’t be ascertained how many Cubans living in China were affected by this measure. The victims The Passage got in touch with said WeChat is yet to give them an explanation for preventing them from doing transactions on its platform. Some have been advised by the WeChat customer care to open a new account.

Most companies that process financial transactions must abide by United States’ sanctions, including the economic embargo against Cuba effective since 1962. In November last year, this embargo was condemned by 189-member states of the United Nations. However, firms that do not comply with the US embargo face consequences. PayPal had to pay USD 7.7 million in settlement to US in 2015 for processing transactions to and from such countries, including Cuba.

Payments with WeChat are allowed in virtually every situation and its adoption is massive. According to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, the adoption rate even among teenagers is 97.3%. Foreigners in China have also embraced electronic payments. They only need a passport, a Chinese bank account and a mobile phone number to set up their WeChat wallet.

But for Cubans living in China, things have become especially difficult after the country opened its banks to foreign investment last year. This is despite Cuba and China having a friendly relationship for decades — President Miguel Díaz Canel even visited China in November 2018.

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Pablo said he didn’t hear of other Latin Americans facing the problem. “It seems directly targeted at Cubans.” According to sources, a significant proportion of the Cuban community in China has reported the problem to the embassy, which frequently helps Cubans navigate financial labyrinths.

Isidro Estrada, a Cuban ex-reporter who has been living in China for 24 years, has for long witnessed the attitude of financial firms in the country. He faced it with the American financial services company Western Union first. “They were the first ones to deny me service around 2009 because of the embargo.”

Those affected by this digital financial embargo say even banks take similar action against people from countries that face US imposed sanctions. Although no banks openly admit they are blocking accounts based on the nationality of the account holder.

For Estrada, things got worse in December last year when his account was blocked by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. “I was not ready to accept that after being the bank's customer for 10 years, it can treat me like a criminal. After my insistence, they showed me an order of the regulation which states that citizens from sensitive countries, like North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Serbia, may not be served by ICBC.”

According to Estrada, the Big Four in China — Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China — have become stricter after the opening up of banks for foreign investment last year. He said Cubans who have linked their WeChat accounts to one of the Big Four were “more likely” to be blocked. Pablo was one of them, but he was never informed about it.

Estrada has now resorted to a smaller bank that “probably does not conduct business in the US.”

A. Alfaro

A. Alfaro is a Beijing-based freelance reporter. He focuses on China's politics, culture and society. He can be reached at varofaro@gmail.com. 

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