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US elections 2020

Meet Trump's WeChat-powered, Chinese conservative fan club

Supporters scattered across US push president's reelection with app he condemns

U.S. President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Sept. 8: His Chinese American supporters aim to help drum up donations and encourage volunteers in swing states.   © AP

NEW YORK -- Anthony, a software engineer in his 50s, moved from China to the U.S. in 1992 as a university student. In 2007, he became an American citizen. Over a decade later, many of Anthony's fellow Chinese immigrants and expats feel uneasy in their adopted country due to President Donald Trump's steady stream of anti-China invective.

But not Anthony: He voted for Trump in 2016 and intends to do so again this November.

"Discrimination against Asians has always been there, it's not caused by Trump saying 'Chinese virus,'" Anthony said, referring to the president's description of COVID-19. "Trump doesn't have the definitive influence on this. Besides, the virus does come from China."

Anthony may not represent the mainstream Chinese American viewpoint, but he is not alone.

He belongs to a conservative grassroots organization called the Chinese American Alliance. Many members are Mandarin speakers in their 40s and 50s who, like Anthony, came to the U.S. as students. The way they see it, they worked hard to attain middle-class status and take pride in raising their families in relatively affluent suburbs.

"We just have fewer people in numbers, but we're not an underrepresented minority," Chuck Li, the president of CAA, said in Mandarin. "We're doing well economically."

CAA hosts a Zoom meeting every Sunday to talk about why Chinese Americans should vote for Trump. Members' main communication platform, however, is one of the Chinese apps the president wants to ban as a national security threat -- WeChat. The alliance manages over 30 groups on the app that focus on specific interests, from immigration to technology to the arts. Each group has roughly 200 participants. CAA's official WeChat account itself has over 90,000 subscribers, according to Li.

While Trump has targeted WeChat in his broader war on Chinese tech companies, the app has given his Chinese American supporters a forum to speak their minds.

"Coming from a country where the political presentation looks very different from the democratic system, a lot of immigrants don't naturally have that high political advocacy," said Sunny Shao of AAPI Data, a research organization that focuses on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. "So having WeChat as a place to follow news, to engage or see the success of some of those actions really boosts up that confidence."

Shao said she has observed both conservative and progressive WeChat accounts, but warned the app tends to reinforce groupthink, since it is "network-based" and does not fact-check information.

"It's a bit hard for you to seek and propose different information from places that are disconnected from one network, because the algorithm just keeps enforcing things you already liked," she said.

The 90,000 WeChat users Li counts as CAA subscribers clearly do not speak for all -- or even most -- Americans of Chinese heritage.

There were over 4 million in the country as of 2018 and, based on an AAPI survey that year, 70% disapproved of Trump's job performance. Meanwhile, 52% had a more favorable impression of the Democratic Party.

AAPI's early polling results published last month showed 54% of Asian American voters supported Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, with only 29% backing Trump.

CAA members are hoping to move that needle. They plan to connect local Chinese organizations in swing states, nudge other Chinese Americans to volunteer for Trump's campaign and encourage donations.

The members have answers for almost every criticism of Trump's handling of the coronavirus. Ask why Trump failed to promote wearing masks, and they say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not brief him properly. Suggest that the White House's pandemic strategy lacked coordination, and they will tell you it is up to state officials.

They also defend the president on issues that hit closer to home.

Many Asian Americans are angry over Trump's use of terms like "Chinese virus" and "Kung flu," linking his rhetoric to discrimination and hate crimes. The atmosphere has turned so sour that some Chinese students are rethinking their decisions to attend U.S. colleges. And then there is the planned ban on WeChat, which would strip away an integral part of Chinese American life.

But CAA has created a group on Telegram just in case WeChat is blocked. And when it comes to anti-Chinese sentiment, Anthony and Li said they have not encountered any hostility.

Chinese American Trump supporters in 2016: The president still has his fans in the community.   © Reuters

"I believe in law and order. America protects individual rights, you can sue if someone breaks the law, and you can have a gun to protect your property, so I'm not worried," Anthony said. "We live in a suburban area, so we haven't felt any threats."

David Jun, a 40-something software engineer in Texas, shares their views. Jun and many other Chinese conservatives believe Trump is their ally on two issues in particular: immigration, or specifically illegal immigration and refugees, and education.

"On average, it takes a Chinese student roughly 10 years to get a green card, while some refugees, even fake ones, illegal immigrants, get it in a year or two," Jun said in Mandarin. "Is that fair?"

Likewise, Jun and other conservatives see a common cause with Trump on race-based affirmative action in education. While such policies are aimed at leveling the playing field for minority students, opponents believe test scores should be the only standard for college admissions.

In August, the Department of Justice accused Yale University of illegally discriminating against Asian American and white applicants. The investigation that produced the allegation came in response to a complaint by Asian American groups. Jun predicted the controversy would help Trump gain Asian votes.

"It's obvious that the swing voters would support Trump on this," he said. "I know a lot of Chinese are leaning left, but education is traditionally very important to us. I even know someone who would give a pass on immigration, but not education."

Yet, some fear that Chinese American conservatives are being exploited.

"[The lawsuits] against Ivy League colleges are highly funded programs, not by Chinese, but by conservative whites who are trying to take away the gains of the civil rights movement," argued Harvey Dong, professor of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "Some of the new immigrants, who aren't fully informed, would get drawn into that, [and then] it creates a conflict."

Edward Blum, the founder of Students for Fair Admissions -- a group that has led a lawsuit against Harvard University -- appeared at a CAA conference in Boston last October. He asked the Chinese members to "commit to this worthy goal" of dismantling affirmative action.

Dong worries such movements make Asians look "selfish" and turns them into "a tool of manipulation" against other minorities.

But for many Chinese conservatives, the word "minority" does not sit well. Min Zhou, a professor of sociology and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained why.

"Because they're from a country where they're the majority, they don't want to be treated as a minority, as the weaker group," she said. "They don't want to be looked down on by accepting the label of 'minority.'"

She also noted that in the 1990s, large numbers of Chinese students-turned-immigrants came from rural corners of China, which tend to be more conservative and traditional. "They believe in the value of family, hard work, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps," said Zhou, who herself came to the U.S. as a student with only $50 in her pocket.

"But they have not realized that you got there because you had to spend twice as much effort," Zhou said. "Working twice as hard, in itself, is discrimination."

To some Chinese conservatives, though, progressive ideals signal immaturity.

"I was young and idealistic once too," said Li, adding that he went to Tiananmen Square during the student movement in 1989. "When you grow older, experience the power of the society ... then you'll find that conservative values are worth protecting."

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