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Censored by China, under attack in America: what’s next for WeChat?

Attempts to shut down WeChat in the US have worsened division in the Chinese-American community, while downloads of the app have actually spiked.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images
October 30, 2020

Four years ago, Bin Xie was happy to sing the praises of WeChat. The IT manager from Houston had seen his pro-Trump blog, Chinese Voice of America, go viral on the app. 

Today, Xie stands firmly behind the president, but his relationship with the platform that fueled his rise has soured. The shift didn’t happen when Trump announced that he would ban the app, though: it came in 2019, when Xie’s account was temporarily suspended after he shared the results of Hong Kong’s district elections in a WeChat group with the note, “The pro-China candidates totally lost.” 

For Xie, who had long been tired of writing in purposefully bungled Chinese to confuse the platform’s censors (“like a kindergartener,” he says), this was the final straw. He started encouraging his followers to leave for alternative apps. 

And he was far from alone. For years, many Chinese-American WeChat users have become increasingly disillusioned with the platform’s opaque censorship and surveillance practices. While some have turned to alternatives, like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Line, most found that WeChat’s popularity meant it was impossible to leave. 

WeChat “is so important to the Chinese-American community,” says Steven Chen, who writes a popular liberal-leaning WeChat blog and helps nonprofit organizations use the platform. “But more importantly,” he adds, “we actually have to use it to communicate with our parents ... the elder[ly] people in China basically only have WeChat.”

This level of nuance was lost when President Trump issued an executive order in early August that would have banned WeChat (as well as the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform TikTok) within 45 days on grounds of national security. While many Chinese-Americans actually agreed that WeChat deserved more scrutiny, few believed that Trump’s ban—seen as both another attack on Chinese-Americans and an example of the administration’s blunt force approach to US-China relations—was the right way to go about it.

‘A virtual Chinatown’

Since its creation in 2011, WeChat has become the undisputed messaging app of choice in China. With its 1.2 billion monthly active users, it is the world’s fifth-largest social network. 

For the service’s owner, Tencent, it has been a huge success, essentially acting as its own mobile operating system. It has an app store that caters to all of its users’ digital needs, combining the social features of Facebook profiles, time lines, and groups; the payment/shopping features of Venmo, Paypal, and Amazon; the geolocation and mapping functions of Google Maps; and, in the age of covid-19, even a health code program that predicts your likelihood of infection, which then determines your ability to leave your home, visit stores and restaurants, or travel.

In the US, WeChat’s user base is much smaller, numbering in the “single-digit millions,” according to Tencent America. They are mostly first-generation Chinese immigrants or others with strong ties to China, who mainly use the app for social activity and information sharing. 

Many of these immigrants are more comfortable conversing in Chinese than English, and Chinese is the main language in use on the app. Steven Chen is concerned that this has made WeChat into a “virtual Chinatown,” keeping “isolated first-generation immigrants from mainland China from the rest of the country and the broader range of political views,” as he wrote in a Medium post in 2018.

The limits are exacerbated by the censorship that, Chen says, everyone knows to occur on the platform. The issue is one that WeChat users—like all Chinese internet users—regularly navigate. (While American WeChat users aren’t necessarily subject to the same levels of Chinese internet policing, it is dramatically easier to create a blog through the Chinese arm of the app, which means that most content is still subject to the Chinese Communist Party’s rules.) Most people don’t have that much to worry about, says Chen, because “they’re not trying to overthrow the government.” But he acknowledges that he is “really careful” when publishing articles, and that he has had them removed in the past. So have Xie and three other blog owners I interviewed.

Online mobilization

At the center of these first-generation immigrants’ experiences on WeChat are its 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 is displayed in each one. 

In the beginning, groups were mostly nonpolitical, reflecting the fact that Chinese-Americans have historically been one of the least politically active demographics in the United States. But this began to change in 2014, driven by two specific events.

The first was a proposition in California called SCA-5 that planned to restore affirmative action in university admissions. The move to allow race, gender, and ethnicity to be considered in these decisions was intended to ensure that more nonwhite students entered the University of California system, and a field poll conducted that year showed that Asian-Americans actually supported affirmative action at a rate of 69%.  

But first-generation Chinese-American parents—who were less supportive of affirmative action—panicked as rumors on WeChat and ethnic media suggested that the bill would result in racial quotas damaging the educational prospects of their children. They used WeChat to mobilize demonstrations and protests, many for the first time, and the bill was withdrawn under pressure, which the new activists considered a victory. 

In November of the same year, Peter Liang, a Chinese-American police officer in New York City, shot and killed a 28-year-old Black man, Akai Gurley. While white officers in controversial shootings had not been indicted—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 charged for a shooting in over 10 years. He was indicted and later convicted. 

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

In the beginning, WeChat groups were mostly nonpolitical, reflecting the fact that Chinese-Americans have historically been one of the least politically active demographicsin the United States. But by the time the 2016 US presidential election took place, it captivated audiences on WeChat just as it did the English-language media.

The community’s interest in political participation grew. By the time the 2016 US presidential election took place, it captivated audiences on WeChat just as it did in the English-language media. 

And among those who benefited from the political activity was Xie. Chinese Voice of America was proudly pro-Trump, repeating right-wing talking points that, often, had already been debunked on English-language fact-checking sites. One article, titled “Banning pork has quietly begun across the United States,” typified how CVA tailored the messaging from right-wing publications to cater to the specific concerns of his audience. (Pork is an important part of the middle-class Chinese diet.)

In an interview I conducted with Xie in 2017, a few months after Trump had taken office, he described how WeChat helped his messages go viral. “If I publish it on WeChat, I’ll get thousands of hits,” he said. “If readers see something on their topic [of interest], they are going to spread it quickly to all their groups”—a much easier process than if he published on a website.

But Xie and his friends didn’t just publish articles and then sit back; they also actively engaged their readers, and their opponents, in vicious partisan debates that often dominated even the most nonpolitical groups. Their coordination made it seem as if 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 she admits that in 2016, the Democratic side was not as prepared for the partisan fights that would take place in WeChat groups. 

Chen says he had never seen politics become as divisive for the community as they did during the 2016 campaign. “In previous years,” he says, “of course people supported different presidents,” but that did not mean that “people stop talking to each other,” or that they gave up friendships that had spanned continents, as they did now. 

At first, he attributed this to Trump himself, but when I pressed him further, he recognized that the app itself was a factor. “WeChat probably played a bigger role ... and intensified the difference between the people,” he says. “It’s not as easy to use email or phone to fight.”

Two sides 

If 2016 revealed strong divisions in the Chinese-American community, at least the most ferocious political debates still focused on supporting or opposing the candidates. But this year, some users say the arguments hinge on something more existential: whether one is pro-China or pro-America. 

Both sides accuse each other of being “red guards,” referring to the youth militia groups weaponized during the Cultural Revolution to attack intellectuals and other “class enemies.” The insult implies that someone is a brainwashed ideologue doing another’s bidding. 

The Pro-China side might also use the more serious label “traitors to the Chinese race” (反华分子), while the pro-America side calls its opponents “CCP spies.” Both of these accusations carry serious weight, given China’s increased demand for loyalty from Chinese abroad, on the one hand, and the US government’s increased concern about Chinese espionage

One woman, who I’ll call Jan to protect her from potential retaliation, recalls an incident that provoked accusations of being anti-Chinese. 

Some time after Trump announced his ban, a member in one of her groups remarked, “WeChat is not innocent,” and suggested that people move to a more secure app, like Telegram. Another group member immediately jumped in, labeling him a traitor and accusing him of “moving people from a popular app to an app that nobody uses ... destroying the grassroots movement.”

The escalation was immediate and dizzying. Pro-CCP users “always have the moral high ground,” she said, “sowing doubts” about the motives of others. 

She kicked the second member out of her group, but still, Jan has been haunted by a lingering question: Are these just typical internet trolls who happen to be pro-China, or are they part of something more sinister—a targeted attack aimed at dividing the Chinese diaspora?

Over the past few months, she’s 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 her experiences, with accounts posting the same kinds of divisive messages and using the same language across multiple groups. They also used the same avatars with the same pseudonyms, which they had not bothered to change between groups. 

Jan has become paranoid about CCP internet operatives, who are already notorious within China’s firewalled internet. There, they are known as the “50 cent army,” because of the apocryphal 50 cents that they make for every pro-China post. Besides, the CCP is known for its long-standing strategy of using its diaspora communities to help the motherland.

So, Jan wondered, was it really so strange to think that the CCP was targeting people of Chinese descent in the United States? 

“In recent years, the Chinese government has stepped up moves to influence the diaspora communities around the world to advance Beijing’s interests, and the use of Chinese tech is a key component of this influence operation,” says Yaqiu Wang, a China analyst with Human Rights Watch. “One of the biggest victims of China’s authoritarian tech expanding abroad has been the Chinese diaspora.”

Jan has been thinking about leaving WeChat, or at least ceasing to express even the faintest of political opinions (including, ironically, suggestions to leave WeChat). 

But regardless of whether she leaves, she is afraid that the damage has already been done. She’s aware of the US government’s increased scrutiny of Chinese-Americans, which is not limited to the FBI but also includes the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. She is also afraid that she has been connected to potential CCP operatives just by virtue of being in the same WeChat groups. When it comes to Chinese-Americans, she says, the FBI “cannot distinguish between victims, collaborators, and masterminds.” 

Indeed, even before the latest wave of discrimination and hate crimes against Chinese-Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, and before Trump’s stubborn characterization of the disease as the “China virus” or “Kung flu,” anti-China sentiment in the United States had been growing. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, has called China “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property,” saying that a “whole-of-society” response from the United States is required to fight it. 

These kinds of remarks, civil rights advocates say, are already resulting in racial profiling, especially of scientists of Chinese descent. 

Backfiring ban

In late August, a group of WeChat users sued the Trump administration on First Amendment grounds. On September 20, the day the ban would have gone into effect, a judge in California’s Northern District Court granted the apps a preliminary reprieve. Since then, the ban has been making its way through the courts. The next decision is not expected until after the election, which might change everything anyway. 

Instead of pushing users away from WeChat, the threatened ban did the opposite. On August 6, when Trump issued his executive order, there was a spike in downloads of alternative apps such as Line, Telegram, and WhatsApp, according to data provided by the mobile apps insight company Apptopia. 

But it also led to a rush of downloads of WeChat itself. This bump was even more pronounced and prolonged around September 20, when the ban was scheduled to go into effect. 

It’s unclear from the data, though, whether or not anyone has deleted WeChat. 

For his part, Xie now splits his time between apps. “Everybody’s just like me,” he says with a chuckle. “Spend some time in WeChat, some time in Telegram, some time in Line … And, in fact, we enjoy better [the] replacements,” he adds, finding it freeing not to worry about group size limits or euphemisms and other creative ways to avoid censorship. 

But if WeChat was a “virtual Chinatown” before, it’s possible these shifts might end up exacerbating political divides. Before, at least, WeChat users could easily come across other Chinese-Americans with different opinions in the same groups. Now Xie, for example, runs a WhatsApp group for people censored by WeChat, while another woman invited me to a Telegram group that was decidedly pro-Trump. 

For Chen, the increased potential for unity is a reason for him to stay on WeChat. He could choose “to get out of the virtual Chinatown,” he says, but then he’d be leaving WeChat to other people. So even though he doesn’t think WeChat is a good long-term solution, he hasn’t abandoned it, because he wants “to fight to make [WeChat] a better place.”

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