The Way WeChat: Chinese Americans, Social Media, and Trump

In the months leading up to the election, the prototypical “Trump voter” was endlessly described, dissected, and puzzled over. Summer 2016 gave us extensive post-primary analyses, comparisons to Brexit, and Hillbilly Elegy, with the terms “xenophobic,” “misogynistic,” and “racist” used to describe our fellow Americans with astounding frequency. On the other hand, we were given the assurance that minority voting blocs, at least, would vote in favor of Clinton. Nearing the election, I noticed articles from the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight telling their readers that Asian-Americans were safely in the Clinton camp, based on results from a national survey. This would have been comforting if it resonated with what I had been observing on the ground. It didn’t.

The various articles all drew from a single survey. Nevermind that Asian Americans are projected to be the largest immigrant group by 2055. Nevermind that Asian Americans come from countries with vastly different political, religious, cultural, and economic histories. Nevermind generational divisions regarding social issues and exposure to diversity. Nevermind the spread of Asian American experiences from New England to the Deep South to California. Rest assured: one survey says enough, and it says that Asian Americans will be voting for Clinton.

Perhaps it is true that, overall, Asian Americans leaned Democrat during this past election. But as a first-generation Chinese-American Clinton voter from North Carolina, I was far from convinced by the sweeping, impersonal story told by the data. I came across another story, by journalist Kaiser Kuo, entitled, “Why are so many first-generation Chinese immigrants supporting Donald Trump?” Kuo writes of his recent relocation from Beijing to North Carolina with his wife Fanfan. Fanfan quickly became involved with the local group chats on WeChat – a messaging app with over 700 million users – and soon observed an incredible amount of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton sentiment. This was much closer to the reality that I saw playing out.

For the uninitiated, WeChat may need to be explained. Released in 2011, WeChat has become the primary social media used within China and by the Chinese diaspora. Group chats serve as a way to connect family members who are abroad with those still in China, and as networks for Chinese communities all around the world. The primary user base outside China seems to be first-generation immigrants like my parents, who grew up in China. WeChat has an astounding ability to bring together Chinese people in America, with countless groups that reach the maximum cap of 500 members. For instance, there is a group created by a husband and wife who go to the Carolina shore every day to catch fresh fish. They make the two-hour drive back to Raleigh to sell the fish to their WeChat customer base out of an acquaintance’s backyard. There are groups that coordinate bulk purchase of fruit from local farms, bringing together hundreds of Chinese Americans in a parking lot to pick up their grapes and peaches from bewildered white American farmers. There is a group for my parents’ Bible study group. There is a group for parents of Princeton students. There were groups used to organize political support during this election cycle. Within the many social groups, memes, viral videos, and links are commonly shared and can spread quickly to millions of users.

My mother had friends and acquaintances who would use the app to message her directly, trying to sway her vote to Trump. She passed on to me the reasons given to her by Trump supporters, asking what I thought of them. I was frankly disturbed by the sloppy, confusing arguments. Once, she asked me, “Isn’t there something about the husband sending photos in the bathroom?” It took me a few moments to realize that she was referring to Anthony Weiner and not Bill Clinton who, as far as I was aware, had never gotten into sexting. In some roundabout way, Hillary Clinton’s morality was being attacked through the sexual activity of the husband of her close aide, Huma Abedin. I told my mom that this argument didn’t make any sense, but she told me that the Anthony Weiner example was used in conjunction with Bill Clinton’s scandal from two decades ago to explain an overarching immorality and destruction of marriage in the Democratic Party. In late October, I was on the phone with my mom and she told me, “One of my friends keeps telling me that there are more of them [Trump supporters] than the media wants us to believe. In fact, there are more Trump supporters than Clinton supporters.” I could believe it.

These impassioned conversations were not geographically limited to WeChat users in North Carolina. A friend from California told me that both of his parents had voted for Trump. In the fall, his father sent him a California voter guide that was circulating on WeChat. My friend opened the guide, and discovered that it was written by members of the Silicon Valley Christian Assembly, with the express purpose of informing voters who wished to prevent the reinstatement of affirmative action. The guide was filled with detailed reasons for choosing mostly Republican candidates on the ballot, for national, state, county, and city government elections. In the summer, another friend of mine sent me a letter that his parents, evangelical Christians who live in New Jersey, had sent to him on WeChat. The letter, typed in simplified Chinese, was a call to Chinese Americans everywhere to support Trump. It was written in a pleasant tone and primarily emphasized the need for conservative Supreme Court justices. There was no indication of who wrote it. The anonymity of the letter perhaps made it even more appealing to circulate, as if allowing the sender to claim the views as their own while not bearing the burden of authorship. I sent it along to my parents, curious as to whether they had seen it. They had.

There are an estimated four million Chinese people in America. I don’t know what fraction of us are U.S. citizens who are registered to vote, but I do know it is a significant population whose political leanings should be taken seriously. The scandals and gossip that rocked this past election, along with emphasis on the politics of sexuality, reproduction, and family, clearly touched a nerve for many first-generation Chinese Americans, especially those within the evangelical Christian community. But missing from the loudest conversations were economics, healthcare, education, and the environment, just to name a few. Furthermore, there was no talk of history – the history of Chinese Americans, of Chinese Exclusion, of illegal immigration from China, or of all that we owe to Black, Latino, and Native Americans. There are only a couple of swing states in which the Chinese American population is large enough that it could have swung the vote the other way. But lest we forget, even in the decidedly blue state of California, 4.5 million people (or 32% of its population) voted for Trump. I am not surprised – and I was not surprised by the outcome of the election. I saw how ideas were collected, shared, and legitimized through WeChat. We know that Trump’s appeal to many American communities, white or of color, immigrant or not, had much to do with the ways in which information and misinformation reached them.

WeChat has brought connection, belonging, and convenience to my parents and their generation in incredible ways. But it has also proved to be instrumental in activating political sentiments among Chinese Americans – acknowledged in a piece published in The Economist on the day before the inauguration – for better or for worse. While many Chinese Americans certainly despised Trump and voted for Clinton or a third party, many became passionately invested in Making America Great Again. The Chinese American community is massive and it is complex. We differ in our ties to mainland China, our political and social views, our religion, our language, our family values, our access to education, and our communities both local and global. There are significant cultural gaps between different generations. Not everyone uses WeChat, and not everyone votes. But four years from now, the Chinese American vote will be more powerful than ever. And WeChat will probably still be around.

– Christie Jiang