Ming Dao, a 57-year-old Chinese-American who came to the US almost 30 years ago, is a recent convert to Donald Trump’s campaign. Over the past two years, he has started at least 10 social-messaging groups with names such as “Americans for President Trump” to reach fellow Chinese-American voters.
But these groups could disappear at any moment: they are all on WeChat, the Chinese social app that Mr Trump has threatened to ban in the US.
While most Chinese-Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, four years later the loudest voices on WeChat are pro-Trump. The partisan blogs on WeChat with the most reach are Republican leaning, according to research by Chi Zhang with Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, who describes the platform as “asymmetrically polarised”.
Chinese-Americans tend not to be passionate about either party — 85 per cent call themselves independent, according to the National Asian-American Survey — but a vocal, mobilised pro-Trump faction has shaped WeChat discourse.
The app has about 3m users in the US, mostly first-generation and recent Chinese immigrants, and has had little success becoming more widely used.
As a result, WeChat’s isolation from most Americans, compared with mainstream platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp, has created a safe space for pro-Trump views “without concerns about one’s neighbours or colleagues finding out”, according to Christina Wu, from Hofstra University in New York.
Mo Fan, a data analyst in Portland, posts on WeChat with his real name and photo. But on Instagram and TikTok, the short video app that Mr Trump has also targeted, he uses an alias. “I’ve seen some examples of Trump supporters posting, and leftist groups finding out where they work and putting pressure on their employer,” he said.
Pro-Trump misinformation proliferates on WeChat’s US-based blogs, which are easy to register and generally serve audiences of fewer than 10,000 readers. One first-generation immigrant in his 60s with an engineering PhD took hydroxychloroquine after reading WeChat articles about Mr Trump promoting the drug as a remedy for coronavirus.
“WeChat’s official fact-checking initiatives generally do not focus on overseas political news,” said NoMelonGroup, a volunteer group of US-based Chinese diaspora fact-checkers.
At the same time, the group said, political disinformation on WeChat is boosted by commercial accounts such as study-abroad blogs, which use fear-provoking headlines to drive clicks, meaning it spreads more quickly than fact-checking articles.
Chinese-Americans back Mr Trump for many of the same reasons as his other supporters. “US conservative culture is very similar to the culture of our fathers and grandparents,” said Mr Tian, a 31-year-old engineer in Missouri awaiting his green card who did not want to use his first name.
“People value family, promote hard work and oppose many modern ideas, such as homosexuality and sexual freedom.”
Yet Chinese-Americans differ from the average Trump voter in their high levels of education and salaries. Those attributes add to their narrative of self-made successful immigrants who do not rely on government handouts. As a result, some elite Chinese immigrants have joined working-class white Americans as unlikely Trump supporters.
Affirmative action has also mobilised conservative Chinese voters who fear that their high representation in educational institutions is at risk.
Trump activists on WeChat use the app to keep in touch with friends and family back in China, but draw a distinction between their love of Chinese people and the Chinese government, which they said was the target of Mr Trump’s policies.
Some accept sanctions on China as it is in the interests of the US. Others are happy to see Beijing bashed, particularly those who came to the US out of disillusionment with China.
One such woman is Wen Hua, who has been door-knocking for Mr Trump in her home state of Virginia. Using the US flag as her video-calling background, Ms Wen described how she came to the US with a wave of Hong Kong emigrants before the region’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
“I don’t like naturalised Chinese-Americans who try to bring socialism or communism here. They can move back to China,” she said.
But it is becoming increasingly difficult to organise on WeChat, not only because of the looming US ban but also because of Chinese censorship. Simple WeChat filters for sensitive terms such as “democracy” can detect articles about US politics. Sometimes when Mr Ming sends articles to his groups, those with Chinese-registered phone numbers on their WeChat accounts cannot receive the links, no matter where they are in the world.
Ms Wen, who used WeChat in 2016 to organise a door-knocking campaign for Mr Trump, was glad to shift away from the platform this year. “I know it is completely surveilled. Nowadays I mostly use Telegram,” she said, referring to the encrypted messaging app.
If Mr Trump manages to pass the WeChat ban, Mr Ming said he would back the president. “I’ll support it, even though the ban will hurt me,” he said. “In the US, WeChat should obey US laws. If you’re in the US, and they use Chinese laws to censor you, that’s not OK.”
With additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing