China’s Most Popular App Is Full of Hate
WeChat groups have become a major vector for anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
The last two years have seen a crackdown on Islamic practices by the Chinese government, from the incarceration of over a million people in the mostly Muslim region of Xinjiang to the replacement of mosques with “Chinese-style” buildings. Most of these measures come from the top, but a growing Islamophobia is also playing a role. Muslim groups in China privately report a growing number of attacks by groups labeling themselves as “anti-halal,” including the smashing of windows and the reporting of minorities to the police.
Abroad, much of the Islamophobia among Chinese immigrants appears to be driven by conspiracy theories and false stories that begin on the Western far-right but are being transferred into Chinese popular consciousness through WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China. Although many other WeChat accounts with political content have been shut down in the last year, the censors appear to be ignoring—if not encouraging—this poisonous vector.
The WeChat page “Chinese Voice of America,” already known as a purveyor of outlandish right-wing conspiracies, regularly publishes articles such as “Muslims in California—the Sunny Cradle of Terrorism and Islamic Radicalization” and “Latest Figures: 70K Jihadists Lurking in Western Europe. Civil War Imminent.” The authors cite an extensive list of sources, including but not limited to the Gatestone Institute, a far-right anti-Muslim think tank; the blog of noted Islamophobe Pamela Geller; the now-defunct fake news outlet QPolitical; and Jihad Watch, one of the main hubs of American Islamophobia.
Take this piece from the WeChat group “Home of North American Chinese” titled, “Terrifying to Think About! ‘I’m in Your Home,’ ISIS Terror Video with Shocking Manhattan Background.” The original English article traces back to Zero Hedge, a Bulgarian alt-right conspiracy website. Or look at this post on the Chinese WeChat page “Anti-Terrorism POV”: “Frightful Warning! ISIS Published New Poster to Declare War on America!” That story originated from the Sun, a British right-wing tabloid. Other pieces focus on the supposed Islamization of Europe and warn the same could happen to China.
This is just a taste of the content published across a number of Chinese-language official WeChat accounts with interchangeable names: Chinese Voice of America, Home of North American Chinese, Chinese American Alliance, American Chinese Web, North American Voice of China, etc. How popular and active they are varies, but the incendiary tone and wildly exaggerated content are all but indistinguishable.
Even in more objective articles, comment sections are full of “yellow Trump fans” (huangchuanfen) going after “libtards” (baizuo) for blindly adhering to political correctness. They often cite 13-year-old Marrisa Shen: Her tragic death, allegedly at the hand of a Syrian refugee, is now a favorite example of Muslim savagery and Asian vulnerability.
In a study run by Chi Zhang called “WeChatting American Politics: Misinformation, Polarization, and Immigrant Chinese Media” published in Columbia Journalism Review, Zhang found “Muslims/Islam” and “Terrorism” to be the most prominent issues featured in WeChat articles, compared to the Chinese ethnic press (Chinese-language publications abroad) and English media (mainstream English language media), both of which feature “Jobs/Economy” and “Health care” as their top issues.
Since WeChat was created in 2011, it has become one of the most useful tools for Chinese immigrants abroad. WeChat’s unique status as part Facebook, part Twitter, and part instant messenger allows Chinese immigrants to tap into networks old and new, and also keep up with friends and family back in China. WeChat official accounts, first launched in 2014, have already eclipsed Chinese-language newspapers in availability of content and convenience. WeChat’s closed system is a warm cocoon, a safe space away from prying eyes, where people can speak their own language with like minds. In other words, it’s the perfect echo chamber for conspiracy and vitriol.
Unlike fake news posted on Facebook or Twitter, WeChat fake news tends to tunnel its way to users without ever being exposed to the light of day. Links are pushed by WeChat official accounts to subscribers, shared between contacts and in closed WeChat groups. I would be completely unaware of this genre of pieces if my parents hadn’t drawn my attention to them, even though some of them rack up views and shares in the tens of thousands.
After decades of consuming Chinese state media, Chinese immigrants are used to distrusting the “official” news and are instead drawing their own conclusions. Western media is seen as equally untrustworthy; there’s an online saying, “A decent person shouldn’t be too CNN,” that dates back to the anti-CNN frenzy of 2008 and 2009, when the network was seen as being anti-Chinese. Uncertain about their place in Western society, their anxiety and vulnerability cause an insatiable appetite for conspiracy—especially shared within their own mutual social networks, one of the few forms of trust in mainland society.
Racial anxieties also play a major role. Historically, Chinese immigrants faced systematic disenfranchisement and racist abuse in the United States. But after the “Model Minority” myth became popularized in the 1960s to explain Asian-American socioeconomic success, the moniker was assumed with pride by many Chinese-Americans, who came to believe in their own superiority to black and Latino Americans. This formed the basis for strong pushback against ameliorative initiatives such as affirmative action, which is seen by many Chinese-Americans as discrimination against their achievements at school and at work. They believe that no matter how hard they work, they are always sidelined, while lazy, undeserving ethnic groups receive unmerited special treatment—a sentiment echoed by white nationalists.
But they’ve been primed, too, toward Islamophobia by their experiences in China. Growing up in Beijing in the 1990s, I was always told by protective relatives to steer clear of the Muslim Uighurs in their characteristic doppa caps, because they were “thieves and murders.” Most Chinese children were taught similar things by family, although the topic was largely taboo in the official media.
Part of this stems from a policy known as “two restraints and one leniency,” passed in 1984, which ordered police to go easy in cases involving ethnic minorities in order to avoid sparking conflicts. Combined with other policies that, on paper, favored minorities, such as bonus points in the national examination system and a more generous approach to the one-child Policy, this convinced many Chinese that minorities were actively favored and spurred resentment. For Chinese-American immigrants, meanwhile, affirmative action in the West and policies supposedly favoring minorities at home came to seem parallel. As the insurgency in Xinjiang worsened in the last decade, false beliefs about the inherently criminal and degenerate nature of Muslims continued to spread.
There is no effective strategy in combatting WeChat fake news short of censorship from the top. While parent company Tencent has rolled out fact-checking mini-apps to combat fake news, searches on them for false rumors related to “Muslims” and “terrorism” came back curiously blank.
These stories aren’t just poisoning the well in China itself, but are also turning Chinese groups abroad into vehicles for the far-right. In Canada, a generous policy toward Muslim refugees has agitated local Chinese immigrants. After the “hijab hoax” occurred earlier this year, when a young Muslim girl made up an attack by an Asian man, Chinese immigrants took to the streets with alt-right groups to demand an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Numerous WeChat articles on the incident warned that Trudeau was so quick to believe the child because of his supposed favoritism toward Muslims and prejudice against Asians. In setting up a zero-sum game between Muslims and Asians, identifying Muslims as a common enemy has politically activated many Chinese immigrants for the first time, a fierce energy that they pass to their compatriots back home.
These stories largely appeal to the older generation of relative newcomers to the United States. Second-generation immigrants, or those who came to the West at a young age, tend to be far more skeptical of racist narratives. As a group, Asian-Americans have swung sharply to the left, with their voting patterns in the recent U.S. midterm elections closer to black voters than any other group. But the rise of right-wing WeChat fake news may usher many first-generation immigrants down a dark road, leading them to be pawns of larger conservative forces eager to pit immigrant groups against one another—and helping prop up increasing official bigotry back on the mainland.