The state election in Victoria saw a dramatic swing to Labor in areas with a high concentration of Chinese-speaking migrants. Mount Waverley saw a 6.4% swing to Labor and Box Hill 7.7%. As participant observers in WeChat discussions, we offer some reflections on the role of Chinese social media, WeChat, in this political process and the emergence of new online opinion leaders in the Chinese communities. And we outline some observations that may interest politicians wishing to woo ethnic Chinese voters in the forthcoming State and Federal elections.
Voters from the Chinese communities in Victoria displayed an unprecedented level of interest in the Victorian election, much of it generated by the ubiquitous use of WeChat in the campaign.
Despite the internal differentiations along the lines of political preferences and identity politics, what is common to Mandarin-speaking communities is the saturated uptake of WeChat as their preferred social media platform. There are many WeChat groups that are formed based on special interests (e.g. parenting, gardening, cooking) or places of origin (e.g. Shanghai Uni Alumni, Shandong Business Association). In addition to these, some new politically-oriented groups emerged during the Victorian election. Each WeChat group can have a maximum of 500 members.
Politically oriented WeChat groups can be based on political affiliations (e.g. ALP groups, Liberal groups) or electoral areas (e.g. Waverley group, South-east group, North and West group, Chisholm). The boundary between these WeChat groups can be porous, with key figures belonging to a number of groups, hence key issues and discussions crisscrossing a network of WeChat groups. Creators and administrators of their own WeChat groups often end up being the opinion leaders in these online communities.
One of the most active WeChat groups in the Victorian election, which went by the name of ‘Forum for Chinese-Australians Promoting Multiculturalism’, currently has 134 members. Its declared objectives, as circulated among members, are: to promote and protect Australia’s multicultural policy; to oppose racism; to encourage Chinese migrants to participate in politics; and to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with other ethnic communities in Australia in order to promote social cohesion and harmony.
In other words, these WeChat opinion leaders often emerge organically, growing out of their active engagement in WeChat group discussions. Their opinions or analyses are informed by their own understanding of Australian party politics and their own political agendas. Some of them are members of political parties; some are at the same time leaders in Chinese community organisations; some are leaders of grassroots community associations organised purely on WeChat.
Voting is a new concept to many Mandarin-speaking migrants from the People’s Republic of China. Aware of this, these WeChat opinion leaders are actively creating initiatives to educate Chinese voters about how democracy works in Australia. Apart from forwarding news reports on the election from the English media and Chinese-language media (including WeChat subscription accounts) in their WeChat groups, WeChat opinion leaders are often asked by group members to provide their opinions on certain news items, such as the Safe School Programs and related topics.
The Liberal Party was very effective in harnessing WeChat in the 2016 Federal Election. Having learned their lesson, Labor was very effective in the Victorian election, with its supporters and members using WeChat groups very widely in winning Chinese voters. They discussed Premier Daniel Andrews’ apology to the Chinese community over anti-Chinese policy in the Gold Rush era, the Belt and Road agreement signed between Victoria and the Chinese government, the new funding for a Chinese aged-care facility and Chinese third-age university in Melbourne’s south-east, and how infrastructure investment in the north-east link would benefit Chinese communities. These discussions functioned as information filters and news digestion forums that made it easier for undecided Chinese voters to get a sense of Labor’s policies.
Chinese migrant voters demonstrated an eagerness to have a voice in Australian mainstream politics and society rather than confining themselves to ethnic silos. A small online survey of people’s primary votes was conducted in Chinese among Melbourne-based WeChat groups in early November, with 97 participants. Its result (58.5% versus 41.5% for Labor and Liberal) turned out to be strikingly similar to the actual election outcome (57.8% versus 42.2%). Although it was a small informal survey, survey findings led an opinion leader of a WeChat forum to observe in his widely circulated musings on the election that “the Chinese communities are not disconnected from the mainstream… Any attempt to treat the Chinese communities as having different interests and preferences from the rest of the society is less than appropriate.”
To maintain momentum following the Victorian election, WeChat group opinion leaders are now calling for volunteers in their communities and encouraging people to get involved in party politics either as members or as candidates. A series of community events (forums, seminars, luncheons and dinners) have been organised by community activists/opinion leaders on WeChat to inform the Chinese communities about the political candidates in their electoral areas and about the Australian political system in general.
Supporters on both sides of politics believe that more Chinese candidates in the race would be a good thing. In the Victorian election, Sophia Sun (Green candidate for Box Hill and a migrant from the PRC) stood out as a new Chinese face. She followed in the footsteps of two female politicians of Chinese origin, Gladys Liu (Liberal candidate for Chisholm and a migrant from Hong Kong) and Jennifer Yang (Labor candidate for Chisholm and a migrant from Taiwan). Both Liu and Yang are well known in the Chinese communities in Victoria. Both have joined a number of WeChat groups.
A position that was articulated just as strongly during the election was that an identity politics focusing exclusively on Chinese-ness would not be appropriate and that Chinese migrants should instead position themselves as advocates of multiculturalism in Australia.
With the NSW state election and Federal election on the horizon, this is certainly an interesting space to watch.
Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney. Haiqing Yu is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. Sun and Yu currently lead an Australian Research Council Discovery Project, ‘Chinese-Language Digital/Social Media in Australia: Rethinking Soft Power’ (2018-2020).