Technology

Censored by China and attacked in America: what's subsequent for WeChat?

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In the US, WeChat's user base is much smaller and, according to Tencent America, is in the single-digit million range. They are mostly first-generation Chinese immigrants or others with strong ties to China who use the app primarily for social activities and information sharing.

Many of these immigrants speak Chinese better than English, and Chinese is the main language on the app. Steven Chen is concerned that this has turned WeChat into a "virtual Chinatown," which "keeps isolated first generation immigrants from mainland China away from the rest of the country and the broader range of political views," as he wrote in a 2018 article in Medium .

The boundaries are tightened by the censorship, which Chen says everyone on the platform is familiar with. The problem is one that WeChat users – like all Chinese internet users – regularly navigate. (While American WeChat users may not necessarily be subject to the same levels of Chinese internet police, it's dramatically easier to blog using the app's Chinese arm, which means most of the content will continue to be governed by the Chinese Communist Party's rules.) Most people don't have that much to fear, says Chen, because "they're not trying to overthrow the government." However, he admits that he is "very careful" about posting articles and that he has removed them in the past. So did Xie and three other blog owners that I interviewed.

Online mobilization

At the center of these first generation immigrants' experiences with WeChat are their groups. They can be created by anyone, but are limited to 500 members. Users can join an unlimited number of them and choose how their name appears in each one.

Initially, the groups were mostly apolitical, reflecting the fact that Chinese-Americans were historically one of the least politically active groups in the population in the United States. But This began to change in 2014 due to two specific events.

The first was a proposal in California called SCA-5 to restore positive action on university admission. Trying to factor race, gender, and ethnicity into these decisions was intended to ensure more non-white students entered the University of California's system, and a field survey conducted earlier this year found that Asian Americans are indeed at some rate of positive action supported by 69%.

But first-generation Sino-American parents who were less supportive of positive action panicked when rumors across WeChat and ethnic media suggested the bill would result in racial quotas that affect their children's educational prospects. They used WeChat to mobilize demonstrations and protests, many for the first time, and the bill was withdrawn under pressure in what the new activists viewed as a victory.

In November of the same year, Peter Liang, a Chinese-American policeman in New York City, shot dead a 28-year-old black man named Akai Gurley. While white officers had not been charged in controversial shootings – including Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York – Liang became the first NYPD officer to who was charged with a filming in over 10 years. He was charged and later convicted.

First-generation Chinese-Americans organized en masse through WeChat, believing Liang had been unjustly scapegoated for the more common crimes of white officers. In the end, Liang was sentenced to five years probation and 800 hours of community service.

In the beginning, WeChat groups were largely apolitical, reflecting the fact that Chinese-Americans were historically one of the least politically active populations in the United States. When the 2016 US presidential election took place, it delighted WeChat audiences as well as the English-speaking media.

The community's interest in political participation grew. When the US presidential election took place in 2016, it delighted audiences on WeChat as well as in the English-language media.

And among those who benefited from the political activity was Xie. Chinese Voice of America took pride in Trump, repeating right-wing discussion points, many of which had already been exposed on fact-checking websites in English. An article titled "The Pork Ban Has Silently Begun in the US" showed how CVA tailored right-wing news to the specific concerns of its audience. (Pork is an important part of the Chinese middle-class diet.)

In an interview I did with Xie in 2017, a few months after Trump took office, he described how WeChat helped his news go viral. "If I post it on WeChat, I get thousands of hits," he said. "When readers see something (of interest) on their topic, they'll quickly get it across to all of their groups" – a much easier process than posting on a website.

But Xie and his friends didn't just publish articles and then sit back. They also actively involved their readers and their opponents in vicious partisan debates that often ruled even the most apolitical groups. Their coordination made it seem like most Chinese-Americans supported Trump. "The pro-Trump side was definitely louder," recalls Ling Luo, a prominent Democratic activist who now leads a pro-Biden affinity group for Chinese-Americans. She ran her own WeChat blog but admits that in 2016 the democratic side was not as well prepared for the partisan battles that would take place in WeChat groups.

Chen says he has never seen community politics become as divisive as it was during the 2016 campaign. "In recent years," he says, "people have of course supported different presidents," but that didn't mean that "people stop talking to each other" or that they gave up friendships that stretched across continents, as they do now.

At first he attributed this to Trump himself, but when I kept pushing him he realized that the app itself was a factor. "WeChat probably played a bigger role … and made the difference between people," he says. "It's not that easy to use email or phone to fight."

Two sides

When strong divisions in the Sino-US community were exposed in 2016, at least the most heated political debates were still centered on supporting or rejecting the candidates. But this year some users say the arguments depend on something more existential: whether you are for China or for America.

Both sides accuse each other of "red guards" and refer to the youth militia groups that were armed during the Cultural Revolution to attack intellectuals and other "class enemies". The insult implies that someone is a brainwashing ideologue who makes someone else's commandments.

The pro-Chinese side could also use the more serious label "traitors to the Chinese race" (反华 分子), while the pro-American side calls its opponents "CCP spies". Both allegations carry serious weight, given China's increased demands for the loyalty of Chinese abroad and the US government's growing concern about Chinese espionage.

A woman, whom I will call Jan to protect her from possible retaliation, recalls an incident that raised allegations of being anti-Chinese.

Some time after Trump announced his ban, a member of one of their groups remarked, "WeChat is not innocent" and suggested that people switch to a more secure app like Telegram. Another member of the group jumped in immediately, calling him a traitor and accusing him of "moving people from a popular app to one that no one is using … to destroy the grassroots movement".

The escalation was immediate and dizzying. Pro-CCP users "always have the moral basis," she said, and "sowed doubts" about the motives of others.

She threw the second member out of her group, but one lingering question haunted Jan: Are these just typical internet trolls who happen to be in China, or are they part of something more sinister – a targeted attack aimed at the share the Chinese diaspora?

For the past few months, she has been comparing notes with friends across the country who have had similar experiences. "We spent a lot of time cross-referencing," she said. Many shared their experiences of accounts where the same types of divisive messages were posted and the same language was used in multiple groups. They also used the same avatars with the same pseudonyms that they had not switched between groups.

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Steven Gregory