Liberal Chinese Americans Are Fighting Right-Wing WeChat Disinformation
Chinese-language social media has been dominated by racism and fake news.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election brought attention to right-wing Chinese Americans effectively using WeChat to spread strident and divisive messages, conspiracy theories, and disinformation among Chinese-language speakers.
This year, unfounded conspiracy theories made their way into hundreds of thousands of chat groups on WeChat again. Chinese supporters of Donald Trump who follow pro-Trump platforms believe the lies that the election was a fraud and that Hunter Biden is a pedophile who has molested many girls in China. A media network associated with the billionaire Guo Wengui and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon was among the chief sources of false stories about the Biden family and their business dealings in China. But unlike in 2016, liberal Chinese voices have taken up the WeChat battleground to counterbalance right-wing conspiracy content, engaging a monolingual audience that’s part of a fast-growing minority bloc with the ability to possibly determine the outcome of future U.S. elections.
Most Chinese Americans vote Democrat, but there’s a substantial bloc of Trump supporters among new immigrants. In the weeks leading up to this year’s election, these liberal accounts published—sometimes cross-published on different platforms—a plethora of content educating Chinese readers about the U.S. election system, debunking right-wing conspiracies, analyzing how a second Trump term might affect Chinese Americans, and pointing directly to the rifts between first- and second-generation immigrants caused by politics.
Some of the liberal platforms are run by former Chinese journalists who now reside in North America, others by community volunteers, and many by individual political news junkies. In stark contrast to the pro-Trump Chinese-language WeChat platforms, most of these accounts are unwaveringly pro-feminism, pro-civil rights movement, and anti-racism.
“It was a real shock when we saw the ‘Chinese Americans for Trump’ group being extremely vocal on WeChat in 2016, and we felt we shouldn’t be represented by them,” said Wu Bo, the editor in chief of Chinese American, one of the prominent liberal-leaning WeChat accounts that has 120,000 followers.
Wu, a software engineer in his 50s and based in the Bay Area, started the platform in 2014, with two other volunteer editors. In a Zoom meeting before this year’s election, the editors told me that they felt beleaguered among friends in their age group between 40 and 60, most of whom supported Trump, though not all of them can vote. And most of the comments they receive on each article come from Trump supporters.
After the 2016 presidential election, Wu’s site, Chinese American, started to gain influence among first-generation Chinese immigrants who moved to the United States after the 1990s by publishing articles on social and political issues concerning this community. It rose to fame this summer, when the Black Lives Matter movement was sweeping across the United States. A series of essays written by second-generation Chinese Americans urging their parents to support the movement and responses from the older generation went viral after appearing on Chinese American. In the election season, editors published another series of letters fostering conversations between liberal young Chinese Americans and their parents, who are often conservative.
Instead of directly rebutting rumors spread by conservative Chinese, Chinese American published a series of profiles of prominent Chinese Americans—left and right—taking readers through the journey of the formation of their politics and peeking into their views on thorny issues that Chinese Americans care deeply about: educational attainment, racism, safety.
“Debunking rumors takes way too much energy. We don’t have that much time,” Wu said. “I think it’s more effective to combat rumors by telling stories of real people and what they have to say about politics.”
To be sure, conservative Chinese Americans are a minority. Only 12 percent of Chinese Americans identified as Republicans in 2018. An AAPI Data survey carried out this summer showed that 20 percent of Chinese American voters thought they would vote for Trump.
Many Chinese Trump supporters moved to the United States in the 1990s or later for a better future for both themselves and their children. The most vocal ones, though many of whom can’t or don’t vote, put much emphasis on personal mobility, educational attainment, and stability over larger issues affecting the community as a whole. They tend to be against affirmative action and pro-police. But even this group is not a monolith. A recent survey conducted by the AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund on suburban Chinese Americans in California found that quite a large number of them were undecided on a range of political issues. Twenty-two percent of survey respondents weren’t sure whether they supported a proposition to restore affirmative action, and 41 percent neither agreed nor disagreed that race should be considered a factor in college admissions.
Community organizers and politicians haven’t really engaged the new Chinese immigrants, who are often isolated and even alienated, said Alex Tom, the executive director of the Center for Empowered Politics Education Fund, an advocacy group in California. Tom believes that liberal-leaning WeChat publications can be one important channel of an ecosystem to tap the group that hasn’t yet developed informed political opinions.
“It’s still an uphill battle,” Tom said. “But I think these are the kind of experiments that are needed.”
North America Headlines, another liberal Chinese site, has taken a different approach to election coverage. The account, run by a professional editorial team, tackles popular conspiracy theories by fact-checking them and providing truth to readers; translates key information about the elections from English into Chinese; and publishes in-depth political analysis and commentaries. Its executive editor, surnamed Chen, a former journalist who now lives in Canada, said the outlet’s readership spiked 20 percent in the six months leading up to the election, and many of them were conservatives.
“Trump frequently targeted China on his campaign trails, and his rhetoric conflating the government and the people has instigated hate crimes against many Chinese people,” Chen said. “This, plus his mishandling of the pandemic, has turned many Chinese supporters away. But this doesn’t mean that their general politics has changed.”
North America Headlines is also present on Weibo. It pushed out live alerts about election results to its 120,000 Weibo followers during election week. In the absence of reliable Chinese media coverage of the U.S. elections (Chinese media were largely prohibited from close coverage), North America Headlines became a crucial news source for readers in China who followed the contested race.
“The reality is such that you can’t discuss Chinese politics in China,” Chen said. “Discussions about American politics are insofar allowed. I hope that what we publish can educate our readers about how democracy works.”
Others see the United States as a chance to do honest journalism, increasingly impossible in China itself. Cheng Yizhong, the former editor in chief of two prominent liberal publications known for their investigative reporting, Southern Metropolis Daily and Beijing News, now runs a New York-based media company that publishes “New York and Beyond” and “New York Chinaren,” two WeChat-based publications that have 190,000 followers combined. Their election content, similar to that of North America Headlines, leaned toward news coverage.
Cheng, who moved to the United States in 2016, said he was saddened and shocked by the rumor-filled overseas Chinese-language media and that he also saw a market for ethical Chinese-language journalism. At the end of 2019, Cheng put together a team of 15 journalists to serve the Chinese-speaking community in their adopted home.
“It’s not news at all,” Cheng said, referring to the misinformation commonly seen in other popular Chinese-language media and on WeChat. “I will never pander to the ridiculous rumormongering and fearmongering. I go back to the simple stuff: facts. If the Biden scandal were factual, I’d run it.”
Though he admits that misinformation and baseless, sensational content will always grab more attention than serious journalism, Cheng sees value in what he does: Not only is it serving the Chinese immigrant community in the United States, but it provides his colleagues and friends in China a rare window to peek into American society and politics.
“What I’m doing is upholding the self-respect of the news industry, or at least the bottom line, which is telling the truth,” Cheng said.
Shen Lu is a journalist covering U.S.-China relations, technology, immigration, and culture.