The 2016 US presidential election drew attention to right-wing Chinese Americans who use WeChat effectively to spread harsh and divisive messages, conspiracy theories, and disinformation among Chinese-speaking speakers.
This year, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories found their way into hundreds of thousands of chat groups on WeChat again. Chinese supporters of Donald Trump who follow pro-Trump platforms believe the election was a scam and that Hunter Biden is a pedophile who has molested many girls in China. A media network linked to billionaire Guo Wengui and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has been a major source of false stories about the Biden family and their business relationships in China. But unlike 2016, liberal Chinese voices have taken to the WeChat battlefield to balance right-wing conspiracy content and appeal to a monolingual audience that is part of a fast-growing minority bloc that may determine the outcome of future US elections.
Most Chinese Americans vote for Democrats, but there is a sizeable bloc of Trump supporters among the new immigrants. In the weeks leading up to this year’s elections, these liberal reports – sometimes published across platforms – published a plethora of content that educated Chinese readers about the U.S. electoral system, debunked right-wing conspiracies, and analyzed how a second Trump term might affect Chinese Americans who point directly to the political-created divide between first and second generation immigrants.
Some of the liberal platforms are run by former Chinese journalists now living in North America, others by community volunteers, and many by individual political news junkies. In stark contrast to the Chinese-language pro-Trump WeChat platforms, most of these reports are unshakable pro-feminism, pro-civil rights movement, and anti-racism.
“It was a real shock to see that the ‘Chinese Americans for Trump’ group was extremely vocal at WeChat in 2016, and we felt they shouldn’t represent us,” said Wu Bo, editor-in-chief of Chinese American. One of the most famous liberally oriented WeChat accounts with 120,000 followers.
Wu, a software engineer in his fifties based in the Bay Area, started the platform in 2014 along with two other volunteer editors. At a Zoom meeting ahead of this year’s election, the editors told me that they felt harassed among friends in their 40-60 age range, most of whom supported Trump, although not all of them could vote. And most of the comments they get on each article are from Trump supporters.
After the 2016 presidential election, Wu’s website, Chinese American, gained influence among first-generation Chinese immigrants who moved to the United States after the 1990s by publishing articles on social and political issues related to that community. It became famous this summer when the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the United States. A series of essays written by second generation Chinese Americans calling on their parents to support the movement and the responses from the older generation went viral after appearing on Chinese American. During the election season, the editors released another series of letters encouraging conversations between liberal young Chinese Americans and their often conservative parents.
Rather than directly refuting rumors circulated by conservative Chinese, Chinese American published a series of profiles of prominent Chinese Americans – left and right – that guided readers through the process of shaping their policies and taking a look at their views on sensitive issues throws that are very dear to the heart of Chinese Americans: education, racism, security.
“Debunking rumors takes too much energy. We don’t have that much time, ”said Wu. “I think it’s more effective to fight rumors by telling stories about real people and what they have to say about politics.”
Of course, conservative Chinese Americans are a minority. Only 12 percent of Chinese Americans were identified as Republicans in 2018. An AAPI data poll conducted this summer found that 20 percent of Sino-American voters thought they would vote for Trump.
Many Chinese Trump supporters moved to the US in the 1990s or later to give themselves and their children a better future. The loudest, many unable or unwilling to vote, place great emphasis on personal mobility, education, and stability in relation to larger issues affecting the entire community. They tend to be against positive action and against the police. But this group is not a monolith either. A recent survey of Chinese Americans in suburban California, conducted by the AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund, found that large numbers of them were undecided on a number of political issues. 22 percent of respondents were unsure whether they supported a positive action recovery proposal, and 41 percent neither agreed nor disagreed that race should be considered a factor in entering college.
Community organizers and politicians have not really engaged the new Chinese immigrants, who are often isolated and even alienated, said Alex Tom, executive director of the Center for Empowered Politics Education Fund, an advocacy group in California. Tom believes liberal WeChat publications can be an important channel for an ecosystem to tap into the group that has not yet developed informed political opinions.
“It’s still an uphill battle,” said Tom. “But I think these are the experiments that are needed.”
North America Headlines, another liberal Chinese website, has taken a different approach to election coverage. The report, which is run by a professional editor, delves into popular conspiracy theories by reviewing them and delivering the truth to readers. translates important information about the elections from English into Chinese; and publishes in-depth policy analysis and commentary. Editor-in-chief Chen, a former journalist who now lives in Canada, said the outlet’s readership rose 20 percent in the six months leading up to the election, and many of them are conservatives.
“Trump has targeted China frequently on his campaigns, and his rhetoric, which binds government and people together, has sparked hate crimes against many Chinese,” said Chen. “This and its abuse of the pandemic have turned many Chinese supporters away. But that doesn’t mean that their general policy has changed. “
North America Headlines is also featured on Weibo. During election week, 120,000 Weibo followers were informed live of the election results. In the absence of reliable coverage of the US elections by the Chinese media (the Chinese media were largely barred from reporting accurately), the headlines in North America became a major source of news for readers in China watching the hotly contested race.
“The reality is that you cannot discuss Chinese politics in China,” said Chen. “Discussions about American politics are permitted wherever possible. I hope that what we publish can educate our readers about how democracy works. “
Others see the United States as an opportunity for honest journalism that is becoming increasingly impossible in China itself. Cheng Yizhong, former editor-in-chief of two prominent liberal publications known for their investigative reporting, Southern Metropolis Weekly 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 with a total of 190,000 followers. Their election content, similar to that of North America Headlines, tended towards reporting.
Cheng, who moved to the United States in 2016, said he was saddened and shocked by the rumored Chinese-language media overseas and also saw a market for ethical Chinese-language journalism. In late 2019, Cheng assembled a team of 15 journalists to serve the Chinese-speaking community in her adopted country.
“It’s no news at all,” said Cheng, referring to the misinformation common in other popular Chinese-language media outlets and on WeChat. “I will never indulge in ridiculous rumor-ringing and scare tactics. I’ll go back to the simple things: facts. If the Biden scandal were factual, I would direct it. “
Although he admits that misinformation and unfounded, sensational content is attracting more attention than serious journalism, Cheng sees value in what he does: not only serving the Chinese immigrant community in the US, but also offering something to his colleagues and friends in China rare window to take a look at American society and politics.
“What I’m doing is upholding the news industry’s self-respect, or at least the bottom line, telling the truth,” Cheng said.