Chinese messaging app WeChat has become a major platform for political discussions among overseas Chinese, as well as a tool for Western politicians to engage in discourse with local Chinese communities.
This trend has taken hold since the 2016 U.S. elections and in Australia, during the 2019 Australian federal elections.
U.S. think tanks and China experts worry that WeChat is a sort of Trojan horse to the West, as the app—which is censored, according to Beijing standards—could be used to influence Western politics abroad.
WeChat, developed by Chinese technology giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., has rapidly expanded overseas as more Chinese expats are using the app for communication. Specifically, WeChat is a communication vehicle between Western elected officials and political candidates and voters of Chinese descent.
But its prevalence means far more than just another competitor in the social media market. It’s enabling the Chinese-ization, or rather, Communist-ization of local communities and could nudge local politics toward alignment with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The CCP controls political views, news flow, and permitted discourse on WeChat to benefit pro-CCP political parties and politicians. On the other hand, some Western politicians choose to self-censor, using the CCP’s criteria on WeChat, in order to reach and appeal to Chinese voters.
What’s worse, the politicians who stand against the CCP’s policies are being gagged on WeChat, with their postings removed or their account closed. In that way, WeChat stands apart from all other social media apps in the West.
Suppression of House Candidate in North Carolina
“I’ve seen WeChat deleting articles from my public WeChat account, and locking and then unlocking my personal account,” 2016 North Carolina congressional candidate Sue Googe told The Epoch Times.
Born in China’s southern Hainan Province, Googe immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 2010. She is a programmer, real estate agent, and had never worked in politics.
As a Republican, Googe was running for office in North Carolina’s 4th District, where Asian Americans account for 5 percent of the population, with 1 percent being those of Chinese descent.
Googe said it takes incredible effort to win over the 1 percent. “[In any other ethnic communities] I’d just need to speak my mind and I’ll gain approval,” she said. “But it’s the hardest in the Chinese community.”
Googe began using WeChat in 2014 to introduce her political viewpoints to the Chinese in her community. She once had several WeChat supporter groups that had more than 1,000 people.
What she didn’t expect was that WeChat “brought her enemies along with friends.”
The turning point for Googe was in March 2016, after she questioned the Chinese Embassy’s infiltration of local Chinese commerce and social associations in her WeChat post. Some WeChat members began to spread her post, and she was subsequently labeled and accused as “anti-China” by other Chinese users. In some cases, she was even verbally assaulted.
“I’m straightforward, and always speak my mind without glib rhetoric. So I’ve caused some debates, and was kicked out of some WeChat groups,” she told U.S. Chinese language media ACLiving in 2016.
“As soon as I’m on WeChat, I get in trouble. When I’m off WeChat, everything is smooth and fine. When I’m on WeChat, embarrassing things happen.” Googe said. “I’m against the anti-U.S. sentiments in China, or the ‘anti-China’ labels put on Americans. ‘Anti-China’ is too heavy a label to carry.”
Googe told The Epoch Times that during the 2016 election, some articles were removed from her public accounts, and her personal account was temporarily closed by WeChat.
WeChat uses human inspection, user reports, and other methods to censors sensitive content and close accounts. Such censorship isn’t transparent, nor does it follow consistent principles.
“We created content policies for individuals and organizations who use our platform,” Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, said in an official response. “As part of the inspection, we will close or suspend accounts that post contents with hatred, erroneous information, inappropriate content, or any other content banned on our platform.”
It’s said that accounts may be automatically reactivated after the poster deletes content that WeChat considers inappropriate. However, accounts that regularly post sensitive contents can be frozen or permanently removed.
Among the 40 Asian candidates who ran for congressional office in 2016, 33 ran for U.S. House seats and seven for the Senate.
When asked if she would do anything differently if she were to run again, Googe said, “I will absolutely stick to my principles and will never draw back.”
“The political environment changes in China in the past year have fully validated my comment that the CCP is an unscrupulous dictatorship,” she added. “Wearing suits doesn’t make them civilized.”
WeChat Helped CCP-Backed Politicians Win Election
For U.S. politicians backed by the CCP, however, WeChat is a powerful campaign tool.
The Washington Post reported in November 2018 how Chinese immigrant Lily Qi used WeChat to help her election as a state delegate for the 15th District of Maryland. Qi is the first first-generation Chinese immigrant in the state legislature.
Previously, Qi was Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett’s chief administrator, overseeing economic and workforce development. Without much support from the local Democratic Party, she turned her eyes to the large Asian community in the district. In addition to writing about the U.S. political system for local Chinese newspapers, she also communicated her political agenda with hundreds of local Chinese voters on WeChat.
In a 2019 interview with Chinese state-run media The Paper, Qi said she contacted unregistered and nonpartisan voters through WeChat and made an effort to change their political opinions. She also said that her campaign doubled the number of Chinese Democrats during the primary election, and encouraged many Chinese to make their first donation to political elections.
These new Chinese voters didn’t suddenly become patriotic. The reality is that the surge of Chinese voters was largely driven by close ties between the Chinese embassy and local pro-communist Chinese groups. During the year-end meeting of the Coordination Council of Chinese American Associations (CCCAA) of Washington, Chinese Minister Counselor and Consul General Tang Li said in a public speech that he hoped the overseas Chinese would contribute to Qi’s election campaign.
Qi also spoke at the same meeting. After her speech, the audience chanted “Lily! Lily! Lily!” to show support.
The Washington CCCAA is one of the most active Chinese interest groups in the area. It has organized training for Chinese voters and has set up voter registration booths in many Chinese community events and encouraged Chinese expats to vote.
CCCAA said in a press release published on June 26, 2018, “Lily Qi has the full support of the Chinese groups and industry associations. She has 500 volunteers to amass, motivate, and mobilize the Chinese community on WeChat, to secure votes person by person, wave by wave.”
The CCCAA is known as a preliminary organization of the CCP, and an important tool for the CCP’s “united frontline” work overseas.
In the same document, the Washington CCCAA said that what’s most important about Qi’s victory is that “all Chinese media and social media collaborated to refute crooked opinions, and to truthfully build a positive public image of the candidate.”
Maryland Chinese are in two camps of opinions toward Qi’s campaign: One camp believes Chinese voters should support Chinese candidates, while the other camp wants to look beyond skin color to focus on political advocacy.
The latter group’s voice, however, has been stifled in the entire process, as WeChat posts with such viewpoints are drowned by criticism that they’re internally weakening the Chinese community and demands that “solidarity leads to victory.”
Qi’s victory was reported by almost all overseas Chinese media and China’s official state media. But that wasn’t her first appearance in CCP propaganda. As early as in 2012, the Chinese state-owned overseas media U.S. China Press interviewed Qi, and the full transcript was published on CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily.