An Elephant in a China Shop

How Chinese immigrants are changing ethnic politics today

By Steven Chen, Founding Partner,

In 1979, the United States and the People’s Republic of China resumed diplomatic relationships. Since then, several million people from China have come to the United States to study and work, and many have stayed. Today, these immigrants from mainland China form the largest group of Chinese Americans in the United States, outnumbering earlier waves of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere.

For much of their period of settlement, particularly from the 1980s through early 2000s, this group was not particularly active or even visible in mainstream U.S. politics. This changed dramatically in 2014, when legislators in California proposed Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA-5), a measure that would allow voters to restore affirmative action through a state constitutional amendment. Since then, this group has continued their efforts on other policies they believe would harm the ability of their children to access higher education, such as affirmative action and efforts to disaggregate Asian American data. Some acvitists have gone even further, opposing immigrant legalization and sanctuary jurisdiction policies.

These efforts have been quite effective. Activists mobilized by Chinese social media killed SCA5, stopped sanctuary jurisdiction efforts in states like Maryland, and have helped to undermine affirmative action and effectively opposed efforts to collect data by Asian national-origin group. These are all key agenda items for the traditional civil rights community. What is behind this phenomenon and how should political leaders respond?

SCA5 as a Catalyst

In 1996, California passed Proposition 209. It prohibits state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. It was intended to nullify race-based affirmative action in those areas.

In 2012, California state senator Edward Hernandez introduced SCA5 (California Senate Constitutional Amendment №5). The bill would have put on the ballot a proposition that allows state institutions of higher education to use race, gender, and ethnicity as a few of a many factors considered in public college admissions. The opponents of SCA5 erroneously claimed that SCA5 would lead to higher education quotas based on the racial make-up of the state population. To be specific, some people claimed that the proportion of Asian American students at UC Berkeley would be reduced from around 50% to 15% to match its population in California.

When rumors about quotas on Asian American admissions broke out on a then newly-formed social media platform, WeChat, Chinese immigrants, the primary users of that platform, panicked. The majority of this group graduated from elite colleges in China. They expected that their children would continue in the tradition of attending elite educational institutions in the U.S. They believed their dreams would be crushed if schools like UC Berkeley were to put a cap on Asian American admissions, as unfounded rumors seemed to suggest. That is why they demonstrated up and down the state of California, from Sacramento to San Diego. They sent protesters to hearings and stormed the offices of legislators. And WeChat provided a powerful tool for them to organize and mobilize around these actions.

What is WeChat?

WeChat has and continues to play a critical role in the dramatic political rise of this group. It is a social media platform developed by the Chinese company Tencent in 2011 and is widely used by the people in China and first-generation Chinese immigrants elsewhere. People use WeChat to form “private” groups around common interests, such as hobbies, political issues, alumni connections, and events. Groups are created and managed by owners who set the tone for the group. One group can have up to five hundred members, and a passionate person can join several hundred groups. As such, a single person can have direct access to tens of thousands people. WeChat can be used as a low cost and effective tool to share information, even spread rumors and promote propaganda.

WeChat is also a powerful mobilization tool; it can quickly spread word of an upcoming event and collect names of participants through a process called “Jie Long” (Solitaire). Jie Long has the effect of encouraging and even compelling people to sign up. Each time a person adds his/her name on the list, that person will notify their participation to the entire group. As more sign-up, others are encouraged to join the growing crowd of participants, and with the addition of each name, the event is advertised to a larger and larger group of people.

However, what really sets WeChat apart from other social media platforms is that WeChat participants are dominated by one largely homogeneous demographic, first-generation immigrants from mainland China. That means people in the WeChat world can make derogatory comments or post true or fabricated stories about other racial or religious communities with no defense from those targeted groups. Over time, people using WeChat could develop very negative opinions about those being targeted. WeChat is both an effective community-building space and a tool for creating fear, and sometimes very negative views of different racial and religious groups.

WeChat — A Virtual Chinatown

Historically, due to formal and informal discrimination and forced segregation, Chinese in America lived and worked in ethnic enclaves called Chinatowns. There were many negative perceptions about “Chinatowns” and its residents, in large part due to stereotypes and lack of interaction. However, it remains true that the people in traditional Chinatowns were disconnected from the rest of the country. They spoke Chinese and read Chinese newspapers for information. They did not have a great deal of consistent interaction with people outside, and vice versa.

When the first wave of immigrants from the People’s Republic of China arrived in 1980, the United States appeared much more open and much friendlier towards people of color compared to the pre-Civil Rights movement era. New Chinese immigrants were able to study at elite and flagship universities, live in the suburbs, and work at big companies outside of an ethnic enclave. They had opportunities to integrate into American society in important ways from the start. However, as WeChat becomes the dominant social media platform for new immigrants from mainland China, it is creating an virtual wall around Chinese immigrant communities.

In WeChat, almost everything is communicated in Chinese. Information from the mainstream media has to be translated into Chinese in order to be effectively propagated in the WeChat world. The accuracy of information is sometimes lost due to inaccurate translation or intentional distortion. Since almost everything shared in the WeChat world is in Chinese, the political leaders and organizations working in mainstream U.S. politics have little idea about what is going on in the WeChat world. Thus, WeChat has become a virtual Chinatown. It has isolated first-generation immigrants from mainland China from the rest of country and the broader range of political views. That is not good for the people in the WeChat world.

Knowing the problem of isolation WeChat has created, some people in the WeChat world are eager to connect the WeChat world to mainstream America and to expand the marketplace of ideas to which immigrant Chinese Americans are exposed. They encourage political leaders and established organizations to reach out to the WeChat world. Unfortunately, this effort has been in vain so far. The WeChat world is increasingly drifting away from mainstream America. Today, from a political standpoint, the WeChat community is very different from the rest of the Chinese American community, and even more so from the rest of Asian American community.

An Elephant in a China Shop

There are about two million first generation immigrants from P.R. China. If you only count the number of votes, this group has limited political power. However, thanks to WeChat, this group can mobilize disproportionately high numbers of people to fight against policies they feel threatened by. For example, they were able to send more than 800 people to a hearing about collecting detailed, disaggregated data on Asian Americans in the state of Massachusetts in January of 2018 to voice their opposition. Proponents, including many Asian Americans, have long argued that these detailed data are critical for addressing the needs of less well-off Asian American groups, such as Cambodians and Hmong. However, many people, mobilized on WeChat, drove several hours or flew across the country to Boston because they heard rumors that the collection of detailed, national origin data would somehow disadvantage or stigmatize Chinese Americans. Such direct actions necessarily entail major personal sacrifices. If Chinese immigrant opponents of the bill didn’t genuinely feel threatened by the policy, they probably would not take part in these political actions. There was little engagement with this group by mainstream Asian American civil rights organizations supporting the bill prior to the hearing.

There is an elephant in a China shop. If it feels threatened, whether in real or imaginary ways, it will act forcefully and cause trouble for everyone, including itself.

Policy makers and advocacy groups need to be mindful of the interests and mentality of this group when formulating policies. If the policy is perceived to hurt or disadvantage this group, we will see a powerful reaction from them. Even a well-intended policy needs to be explained carefully and respectfully to this group, or political opponents could twist the narrative and convince this group that the policy is meant to hurt them.

The people in this group are interested in making a positive contribution to U.S. life and are excited to be participating in U.S. politics. In daily life, they work as engineers, doctors, scientists, and business people. They volunteer for civic projects, such as beach clean-ups and helping the homeless. They are reasonable people, too. If interested parties are willing to reach out to the WeChat world to better understand their political hopes and fears, and to show that their ideas are valued and respected, hearts and minds can be won.