Since its inception in 2011, the Chinese-language messaging app WeChat has become an indispensable organizing tool for first-generation Chinese immigrants to influence local politics.
Nowhere has their activism been more effective than on the issue of education. In February, Chinese American parents in San Francisco organized on WeChat to successfully recall three school board members who voted to dismantle the merit-based admissions system at the elite Lowell High School. The tactic is not new: In 2018, a New York City parent said he rallied thousands of parents on WeChat groups to protest a proposal to scrap the entrance exam for admission to the city’s most prestigious public high schools.
This year, with congressional midterm elections just half a year away, affirmative action admissions policies have also made it to the Supreme Court, whose decision last month to uphold the new admissions system at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology triggered contentious reactions in the Asian American community. Another case on race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina keeps affirmative action a widely discussed issue on WeChat.
“WeChat’s become a social lifeblood for Chinese diaspora communities,” said OiYan Poon, an assistant professor of higher education leadership at Colorado State University whose research on affirmative action incorporates WeChat. “It’s one of the few social media channels you have access to if you want to stay in contact with family and friends in mainland China.”
The social networking aspect of the platform makes it similar to Facebook. At the same time, the proliferation of news-focused accounts on WeChat helps it function as a kind of digital ethnic media for first-generation, highly educated Chinese people who immigrated after the 1990s.
“It’s like a ‘virtual Chinatown.’ You have to have the language skills and tech background to navigate public accounts. But once you’re in, you’re connected with everyone you can connect with.”
— Jin Xia Niu, digital engagement program, Chinese for Affirmative Action
Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action in education, but a small yet tech-savvy subset of the group has used WeChat to achieve remarkable political gains.
The crusade against affirmative action on WeChat took off in 2014, when California lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to reinstate the practice at public institutions. In 2014 and 2020, when the state again put the measure on the ballot, conservative activists used two ways to spearhead their campaign, first by spreading disinformation through official WeChat channels, then creating dozens of groups to organize Chinese parents who oppose affirmative action.
In a 2012 survey conducted by the policy research group AAPI Data, 80 percent of Chinese respondents said they favored policies that expand access to higher education for Black students and other minorities. Four years later, the percentage dropped by more than half, largely owing to conservative activism on WeChat in the leadup to Donald Trump’s election.
Janelle Wong, co-director at AAPI Data, said WeChat is a “vehicle for mobilization” for the Chinese right-wing that wields some degree of influence in shaping attitudes.
In her analysis of the nationwide 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, Wong found that Chinese registered voters who are politically active on WeChat — and who listed WeChat as a trusted source of information — were more likely to oppose affirmative action than those who were not. But only a minority of Chinese registered voters indicated they were politically active on the platform, and far more people still considered the Chinese-language media as their primary news source.
In 2019, the progressive group Chinese for Affirmative Action rolled out a multipronged digital initiative to combat disinformation on WeChat. The group created three WeChat channels and a website that together publish 10 to 15 articles a week to promote progressive narratives on affirmative action. In January, it launched a centralized fact-checking website called piyaoba to debunk fake news about affirmative action.
Some widely circulated claims that get fact-checked include that affirmative action policies establish a racial quota system in elite colleges and specifically discriminate against Asian American applicants. Falsehoods on other racial justice issues include that Black people are the main perpetrators of anti-Asian violence and that critical race theory is “the American version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.”
Chinese registered voters who are politically active on WeChat — and who listed WeChat as a trusted source of information — were more likely to oppose affirmative action than those who were not.
— Source: 2020 Asian American Voter Survey
Jin Xia Niu, who oversees the group’s digital engagement program, said WeChat has some unique features that turn it into an echo chamber where bogus news spreads easily. Her team has detected more than 80 disinformation channels on WeChat, mostly run by first-generation Chinese immigrants. These channels, Niu said, are closely monitored and censored, making it difficult for people with opposing values to join or stay long.
“It’s like a ‘virtual Chinatown,’” she said. “You have to have the language skills and tech background to navigate public accounts. But once you’re in, you’re connected with everyone you can connect with.”
Niu said progressive voices on WeChat have grown rapidly in the past few years. When her group launched its three channels in 2020, they were some of the only pro-affirmative action sources on the platform. Since then, their efforts have inspired a few other prominent progressive sites, such as Xin Sheng Project, a fact-checking initiative founded by a group of Chinese American college students who immigrated to the U.S. as children.
Despite such efforts, progressive narratives on WeChat are still outnumbered. With the approaching midterms and the Supreme Court decision on Harvard, Niu said, she is preparing for another wave of disinformation on the platform.
“There’s a danger that conservatives, because they’re so vocal, are taking over the digital space,” she said. “It’s important for us to continue growing and balance their perspective.”