Digital, Political Nomads: Meet the Chinese Americans for Trump
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This is where Trump’s Chinese support gathers.
By Sean Culligan and Nick Fouriezos
When Phoebe Xu left China for the U.S. as a 20-year-old in 1982, she was fleeing a suppressed society marked by the aftereffects of the bloody Cultural Revolution. So more than three decades later, when a political-correctness-decrying capitalist rose to the top of the presidential pecking order in her new home, she didn’t see a pariah — like many of her Asian American peers — but a powerful testament to social conservatism and free speech.
Xu soon found she wasn’t alone. Along with hundreds of others, the 57-year-old project manager began posting to a sprawling pro-Trump group on WeChat, China’s most popular social media app. Their energy grew as the candidacy of Donald Trump did. By the time Trump became president, Xu had branched out into a separate, private WeChat group of about a dozen like-minded conservative Californians who talked about daily life, a politics shaped by immigrant success stories and their escape from socialism. “We came to America with $40 to start life. Now many of us have become relatively successful,” she says.
Their story is reflective of the way Trump is fostering unlikely backing within groups that don’t broadly support him. As the president has lambasted China amid a multibillion-dollar trade war, Chinese American opinions have been abysmal — just 24 percent approve of his job performance, the second lowest of any Asian American demographic, according to AAPI Vote’s Asian American Voter Survey conducted in October. Yet Chinese American support groups for Trump are congregating in myriad ways: from middle-class families buying up property in New York City at record levels to activist groups trying to pass legislation in Georgia to those, like Xu, taking up digital real estate.
Formed during the election, Chinese Americans for Trump (CAFT) has about 6,000 verified WeChat members and chapters in 31 states. The group’s founder, Tian “David” Wang, claims that it receives more than 500,000 WeChat messages a day. The Trump administration is doubling down too, on trying to woo Chinese Americans. On Dec. 20, just before the government shut down, Trump signed into law the Chinese American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act, bipartisan legislation that honors those from the community who fought for America seven decades ago even as they were being discriminated against back home.
— David Tian Wang (@david_tiantian) October 21, 2018
The community’s activism is split generationally. Older, middle-class immigrants like Xu are drawn to conservative economics and preventing illegal immigration. More-recent immigrants, typically with young families and used to China’s more conservative social norms, are often worried about affirmative action programs that could keep their children from attending Ivy League schools. Then there are the hyperlocal concerns that dominate WeChat forums, from complaints about transgender bathroom laws in nearby schools to hand-wringing about proposed homeless shelters that could lower property values in Chinese neighborhoods.
While Asian Americans generally have lower political participation due to language obstacles and lower socioeconomic status, those Chinese immigrants arriving since 2010 are very active, says Sunny Shao, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Riverside, studying the WeChat phenomenon. On WeChat especially, they lean Republican. “They are people who have conservative beliefs on issues … but they don’t want to take a party line,” says Shao.
In the neighborhood of Flushing in Queens, Chinese buyers have flooded the housing market since at least 2013. Last year, 24 percent of the nearly 1,000 loans closed by the Astoria-based Quontic Bank were to Chinese borrowers, up significantly from 14 percent in 2017. The average mortgage was $438,979, showing that these aren’t foreign scions building real estate empires. No, these are middle-class families pooling their money — sisters and uncles, mothers and even cousins still in China — to purchase their piece of the American Dream. They are helped by Quontic’s Lite Doc program, which offers loans without requiring tax returns. And for many of those working-class Chinese, Trump’s economic promises override concerns about a trade war with China.
A lot of them “were very happy, because he was pro-business,” says second-generation Chinese American Steven Ho, a senior loan officer at Quontic and a lending expert on Chinese buyers. “I’m not talking about the suits-and-shirts businessman, but the small, self-employed mom-and-pop.” While long-in-place Chinese restrictions on money transfers to America affect buying, Trump’s tariffs mostly affect higher-end Chinese citizens, those who “have multimillion-dollar businesses,” Ho says.
The conversation online is particularly populist. It has included posts encouraging WeChat users to contact California gubernatorial candidates about affirmative action in 2017 and organizing a Boston protest against Harvard’s admissions process and a supportive state bill in 2018. Chinese parents in Silicon Valley and Hutson, California, started debating a transgender bathroom law during the 2016 elections. Meanwhile, Chinese families in Irvine, California, began a digital charge against a proposed homeless shelter near their neighborhoods — which culminated with county officials changing plans after buses filled with hundreds of mostly Asian residents arrived at the Orange County Hall of Administration with signs saying “No Tent City” and “No Homeless in Irvine.” Their platform of choice? A local company with 40,000 members that uses WeChat messaging services and calls itself “WeIrvine.”
CAFT, meanwhile, has persisted in a way other minority-focused Trump groups, such as Latinos for Trump, have not. Volunteers have paid for billboards in more than a dozen states and have flown pro-Trump banners over multiple cities. Wang, its founder, says the group at times will organize social media swarms where users are asked to like, share or tweet something, and respond in mass numbers. “We’re not a one-issue group. Everybody has their own critical thinking,” Wang says. Last summer, the CAFT chapter in Georgia organized an official event supporting Republican congressional candidate Karen Handel; in January, one of its members, Sunny Wong, was named the official Chinese American liaison to the GOP’s state party. Earlier this month, Gov. Brian Kemp wished the group a Happy Lunar New Year, which was posted to its Facebook page. And it’s expecting its support base to only grow, as core members become even more active close to the 2020 elections. “We are really moms and pops. Working-class everyday folk,” Wang says. “We get together to help when necessary, and go back to everyday life when we are not needed.”
Because the internet and reality so often collide, it’s perhaps not surprising that CAFT members have been particularly active on WeChat — even writing articles for Chinese Voice of America, one of the app’s news-producing accounts. “You have Chinese Americans who say that everyone I know supports Trump. That may not actually be true, but it is true when it comes to dominating discourse on WeChat,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of AAPI Data.
One twist: Since the middle of last year, Shao says, the Chinese government has ramped up censorship on WeChat, particularly after one conservative blog was accused of racism for ridiculing an article about an African student learning Chinese. Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, admitted in September 2017 that it shares user data with the Chinese government. Research by the Citizen Lab, part of the University of Toronto, has shown that WeChat censors group chats more than one-on-one personal messages.
These concerns are leading activists like Xu to shift their political talk to platforms outside of Beijing’s grasp, such as Korean-owned apps like Line and KakaoTalk. Pro-tariff talk could be construed as anti-Chinese. “Many of us have relatives and family in China. We don’t want to be the ones who go back to visit and get caught or imprisoned,” she says. But they’re not quitting their support for Trump. They know how to escape the authoritarianism of the Chinese government. They’ve done it before.