WeChat’s Potential for Social Activism and Civic Action in the Chinese Diaspora (GJIA Dec 10, 2020)

Jan 4, 2021

WeChat is predominantly used by Mandarin speakers both within and outside China. Although this social media platform is owned by a Chinese company and is subject to China’s censorship and scrutiny, it nevertheless has the potential to enable social activism and civic action in the Chinese diaspora across the globe.

This year, two Chinese social media platforms have become pawns in the ongoing technological and trade war between the United States and China. One is TikTok, a video-sharing platform owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance that is particularly popular among teenagers in the United States and the global West. The other is WeChat, owned by Chinese multinational technology conglomerate Tencent Holdings. It is the predominant social media platform both in China and for first-generation Mandarin-speaking Chinese migrant communities worldwide. By August 2020, WeChat had attracted over 1.2 billion active monthly users, among them more than 100 million living outside China.

In early August, citing national security concerns, President Trump signed executive orders effectively banning TikTok and WeChat.

With its exceptionally high level of usability and myriad functions, the appeal of WeChat to the Chinese diaspora is plain to see. This super-app can perform many of the functions of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and PayPal, and comes with additional e-payment, e-commerce, and e-lifestyle features. It is often called a “super-sticky” all-in-one app and mega platform, or the “digital Swiss Army knife” of interpersonal communication, business transactions, and community organizations. WeChat is predominantly used by Mandarin speakers both within and outside China because of its agility, versatility, and resourcefulness.

While there has been plenty of public commentary surrounding the fate of TikTok, there has been relatively little consideration of the implications of the ban on WeChat, possibly because the latter is almost exclusively used by diasporic Chinese, and so does not concern mainstream Americans. The analysis that does discuss WeChat mostly centers on a range of highly publicized issues mainly aiming to problematize the platform. These issues include privacy; WeChat’s potential risk to the national security of Western nations; the misinformation and disinformation associated with it, especially during elections; the censorship and scrutiny of WeChat by the Chinese authorities; and the fear that it may be used as an instrument for disseminating messages of Chinese propaganda. Moreover, WeChat is often blamed for Chinese migrants’ reluctance and inability to integrate into mainstream society, as WeChat enables them to continue living in a “Chinese” world.

What is conspicuously absent is an analysis of the extent to which WeChat enables diasporic Chinese users to participate in social activism, promote social justice causes, engage in public debate, or mobilize civic action in their countries of residence.

In many countries and regions, especially those with a sizable population of Mandarin-speaking migrants such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and countries and regions in Europe, WeChat has been put to use promoting social integration in ways unimaginable in previous decades. Unlike earlier-generation Chinese ethnic community organizations—which rely on a conventional organizational hierarchy for purposes of organization, association, and mobilization—first-generation arrivals from China now mostly engage in interpersonal, group, and community socialization through WeChat. In the (Australian) summer from late 2019 to early 2020, when bushfires in many parts of Australia claimed many lives, destroyed thousands of houses, and devastated millions of hectares of land, many Chinese Australians used WeChat to arrange fundraisers and persuade others to donate to bushfire recovery appeals.

Soon after the bushfire season was over, Australia entered the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with many Chinese Australians returning home after the Chinese New Year deciding to self-isolate even though it was not mandatory at that time, Chinese Australians took to WeChat to organize volunteer groups. These groups coordinated the tasks of shopping and delivering food, groceries, and other necessities to those confined to their homes, while regularly sending messages of moral support to each other and reinforcing the importance of voluntary quarantine. Everything, including payments, was organized on WeChat, with no need for face-to-face contact.

In times of COVID-19, medical advice and health-related information delivered in languages specifically targeting ethnic communities also become vitally important. In Paris, non-French-speaking Chinese migrants were, with the help of WeChat, able to access medical e-consultations with Chinese-speaking health workers and medical professionals.

WeChat has also been used to make connections and develop solidarity on social issues with other marginalized racial and ethnic communities, as well as with mainstream society. For example, in June 2020, Australia, like much of the Western world, was gripped by media accounts of the widespread protests in support of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. But citing health concerns, the authorities discouraged and, in some cases even banned, protests in public places.

Eager to go ahead with planned rallies but concerned about the likely risk of spreading COVID-19, the organizers of a mainstream protest in Perth, Western Australia, were moved to tears when a Perth-based Chinese community donated 11,000 masks to them. The collection of these masks was organized within the space of one evening and coordinated almost exclusively via WeChat.

Perhaps the most significant social impact WeChat has had so far is in the breaking down of barriers to debate and dialogue between first-generation Chinese migrants and their children, between the politically left and right in diasporic Chinese communities, and between those who are bilingual and those who mainly read and write in Chinese. This is clearly evidenced in recent debates during the Black Lives Matter protests, when Yale student Eileen Huang published an open letter on WeChat to Chinese Americans of her parents’ generation, calling for solidarity with Black Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities in fighting against racism.

This debate within the Chinese community in the United States, enabled by WeChat, is significant both in cultural and social terms. As Rong Xiaoqing, a Chinese-American commentator, observes, “this is a rare large-scale, open and direct ideological confrontation in the history of Chinese Americans.” The case of Huang is only the tip of the iceberg.

While WeChat can clearly be used to facilitate social activism, the prospect of its imminent ban in the United States following President Trump’s executive order has caused widespread confusion and anxiety among WeChat users in the United States and, to a lesser extent, other countries. There are about five million Chinese Americans in the United States, most of whom are WeChat users. Their biggest fear is the possible loss of connection with families and friends in China, and with people in the networks they have established via WeChat.

The President’s ban, and the subsequent collective anxiety, precipitated particularly well-organized, large-scale, and grassroots civic action on the part of the Chinese American community. Following the announcement of the ban on August 6, five US-based attorneys of Chinese heritage founded a non-profit organization called the US WeChat Users Alliance (USWUA). On August 8, 2020, the organization published an open letter calling for donations from US-based WeChat users to support a legal campaign against Trump’s proposed ban. On August 28, just a few weeks after the executive order, USWUA filed a lawsuit in San Francisco federal court against President Trump to block the executive order. The lawsuit claimed that the President’s ban was “unconstitutional,” and violated Americans’ First Amendment right to “receive foreign speech.”

Not surprisingly, WeChat has been the main platform for grassroots mobilization and organization in this initiative, as well as the main channel through which lawyers have explained the legal process, provided updates, and foreshadowed further actions. In addition to garnering support for USWUA, the organization also raised money—specifically one million dollars by September 21, 2020—with donations all from WeChat users based in the United States and with no relation to WeChat or its parent company Tencent.

The potential of WeChat in promoting social activism is significant for our understanding of diaspora politics and the diasporic public sphere, despite its Chinese and authoritarian “home.” Its significance is revealed in the incipient evidence of its role in both facilitating transnational dialogue among global Chinese diaspora communities and forging solidarity with other marginalized communities and ethnic or racial groups in host countries through civic actions. To be sure, Chinese diaspora activism, like social activism elsewhere, has to reckon with hierarchies of age, gender, race, economic power, and organizational structure, and consequently faces numerous limitations.

Despite these limitations, and despite the authoritarian regulatory regime it is subject to, WeChat has shown promising signs of usefulness. However, there is so far little evidence to suggest that the often-expected democratizing potential of digital diasporas is being actively realized in relation to the homeland (China). Moreover, it remains to be seen if this emerging, WeChat-enabled diasporic activism and the associated forging of connections with local mainstream societies can continue despite the existing problems associated with the platform.

Given the potential role of WeChat in promoting civic culture and social activism, state and federal policymakers and think-tanks tasked with promoting immigrant integration should identify concrete ways of using WeChat to facilitate civic education, multicultural integration, and social cohesion. Similarly, NGOs that are keen to involve Chinese diaspora communities in promoting solidarity with social justice causes may want to take advantage of what this Chinese social media platform has to offer.

In countries with sizable WeChat-using Chinese immigrant populations, education about the political, social, cultural, economic, and security implications of WeChat is important. Learning about social media in China, including WeChat, should become a routine part of journalism training and media studies. For working journalists wanting to understand the Chinese diaspora and the politics of multiculturalism, a nuanced and complex grasp of how WeChat works to facilitate social activism, civic action, and intellectual dialogue is essential.

This article was published by the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

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