Before the days of social media, Chinese-American activists embraced the email chain to mobilize their community for a cause. Chinese language schools and alumni associations served as networks.
Then WeChat, a social media app developed by Chinese company Tencent and launched in 2011, made things a whole lot easier.
Part on Facebook, part on Twitter, part on WhatsApp, WeChat caught the attention of conservative Chinese Americans, many of whom were first-generation immigrants.
They used it not only to rally around issues they saw as discriminatory, but also as a lifeline to communicate with family and friends in China.
President Donald Trump put all that in jeopardy last week when he issued an executive order banning U.S. use of WeChat, effective next month, for national security reasons.
A WeChat user, a U.S. citizen from China, said such a ban would upset the way she and others communicate with her family in China. She spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation.
“It’s quite upsetting to think that very soon I might not be able to freely share photos, call my family, because there is no other social media,” she said. “Facebook is banned in China. … We could go back to old phone cards. ”
George Shen, another US citizen who emigrated from China almost 30 years ago, said he supported Trump’s WeChat ban, even though it would make contact with family in China more difficult.
Last year, Shen went so far as to circulate a petition on social media – including WeChat – calling for the platform to be banned. He cited censorship by the Chinese government as a major reason.
“Why do I have to follow the rules in China?” Shen said, adding that his WeChat account has sometimes been temporarily suspended for sharing content that apparently harmed the Chinese government.
Trump’s move could also stifle a lively conduit of conservative rhetoric among Chinese Americans – rhetoric that has been used to mobilize support to help him and other Republicans win the election.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data and professor of public policy at the University of California at Riverside, said that while 2016 has been a big year for Chinese-American conservatives, especially in their organization through WeChat for efforts such as the Chinese Americans for Trump, some of that support has waned since then.
Outside of politics, WeChat has made life easier for many of its over 1 billion users, most of whom are Chinese speakers. The app can be used to buy groceries, pay bills, and help overseas Chinese stay in touch with loved ones in China. This is also where many Chinese speakers get their news.
WeChat watchers say conservative China-U.S. Organizers are preparing to explore new media to get their message out, even though not everyone agrees with Trump’s re-election.
“I would predict that if – this is a big if – WeChat is indeed banned, the activist community will find workarounds,” Ramakrishnan said.
Chinese-American conservative activists are among those who have taken advantage of WeChat to bring together members of their community en masse for protests on issues such as ending affirmative action in schools and banning disintegration data, the process of disaggregating data by ethnic group.
But the platform’s political landscape has changed since the last presidential election, according to WeChat observers.
Ramakrishnan said more moderate and progressive voices are talking about it, especially through microblogs that are shared and on public accounts.
As for the conservative organization on WeChat, these days it is much less focused on Trump than on issues such as affirmative action, criminal justice reform and racial justice, according to Zhang Chi, former Tow scholar. Columbia University’s Center for Digital Journalism, which wrote a 2018 study that examined disinformation and political polarization on WeChat.
Zhang, however, predicted that a WeChat ban would not significantly affect conservative organizing efforts. She said users are already preparing to switch to other platforms, including Telegram, WhatsApp and LINE, as well as web forums like Wenxuecity.
“It will be more patchwork than the integrated infrastructure provided by WeChat, but the buy-in and momentum is already in place,” Zhang said in an email.
It remains to be seen whether this will translate into support for Trump in 2020.
Zhang said that while Trump’s Sino-US base is still on WeChat, she believes it is in a “weak state.” Ramakrishnan said Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has complicated discourse in spaces like WeChat.
“I imagine he has had fewer supporters in the WeChat world, as they say, than in the past,” Ramakrishnan said.