How China Uses WeChat to Influence American Elections

How China Uses WeChat to Influence American Elections

Beijing’s efforts to swing U.S. elections have gone relatively under-noticed in Washington. That must change.

Russian efforts to manipulate American elections have made headlines in recent years. But China’s attempts at such have achieved more—largely because they have been overwhelmingly conducted via WeChat, an application popular among Chinese-Americans. As the 2024 presidential election heats up, campaigns, voters, and the federal government must be vigilant against CCP efforts to use the platform to influence American elections.

In February 2016, Chinese-Americans erupted in nationwide protests in support of Peter Liang, a Chinese-American cop convicted of manslaughter following the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in a dark stairwell in Brooklyn. The Los Angeles Times noted that the protests were organized through WeChat and reflected “a rare instance of collective political action by Chinese Americans.”

But far from being organic expressions of anger, significant evidence suggests Beijing’s involvement. David Tian Wang, one of the principal protest organizers, is a Chinese green card holder and activist who has long been associated with people and groups affiliated with the Chinese government. In February 2016, Wang used WeChat to help organize protests in dozens of American cities within one week, taking the lead in rallying as many as 100,000 people from, he claimed, forty-eight different states. “This is how powerful WeChat is,” said Wang. The fact that Chinese state-backed media outlets such as the Global Times and the United Front-linked China Qiaowang promoted Wang’s efforts suggests a relationship with Beijing.

Later that year, whether out of concern over the consequences of a Hillary Clinton presidency for China, or a belief that Donald Trump could be bribed or manipulated, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) threw its weight behind Trump’s candidacy. In March, Wang converted the numerous pro-Peter Liang WeChat groups into pro-Donald Trump groups. In the process, he established what would become the largest pro-Trump Chinese-American organization, Chinese Americans for Trump (CAFT). This group, which would eventually grow to over 8,000 registered members, started canvassing for the future president in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Ohio as early as March 2016, eventually reaching 10,000 to 15,000 households in each of these states. Other groups, similarly organized on WeChat, sprouted up in places such as Missouri, where 300 Chinese-Americans canvassed for Trump. CAFT and these other Chinese-Americans groups also spent significant sums of money on the race.

Meanwhile, WeChat and Chinese internet sites were flooded with pro-Trump (and anti-Hillary) posts praising his wealth, business acumen, and unconventional style. Pro-Clinton material was consistently demoted, and websites such as the Asian American Democratic Club for Hillary were banned from the platform. The context for all this activity is that Beijing does not permit content on WeChat that runs against its interests.

The result of Beijing’s apparent influence seems evident in the Chinese-Americans community’s 2016 voting patterns. Whereas Chinese-Americans have historically leaned Democratic in previous elections, and almost all Asian-American groups increased their support for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 compared to 2012, Chinese-Americans moved in the opposite direction. Trump captured 24 percent of the vote, up from Mitt Romney’s 17 percent, meaning that 150,000–200,000 Chinese-Americans, roughly one-tenth of that community’s voting population, switched parties due to CCP efforts to influence American politics through WeChat.

However, the Chinese government badly misjudged Trump. He was a very different president than they had expected, confronting Beijing on many issues. The CCP thus changed course midway through his term and started promoting Democratic candidates. The CCP’s pro-Biden strategy was evident in influential WeChat public accounts, moderated chat rooms, and influential personal accounts, all of which flipped their narratives. For example, College Daily, Global Times, and Weinsight, among the largest public accounts focused on news, changed from pro-Trump to pro-Biden. WeChat promoted organizations such as Chinese Americans for Biden and enabled them to use the app in ways Democratic groups could not in 2016.

Meanwhile, group administrators bullied, ostracized, or banned pro-Trump voices. Sites run by progressives that previously had few viewers, such as Chinese-Americans, gained traction in a way that was previously not possible, with certain sites’ viewership levels growing by a factor of ten or even one hundred within a relatively short time. Groups that continued to support Trump, such as the Chinese American Alliance, Civil Rights, and Rainier Store, were banned. As Sam Ni, administrator of the pro-GOP “This Is the Way” account, told me, “WeChat and the arm behind it are too long. Despite focusing only on American issues, I am still under their crackdown. I don't know how to adapt to this and what rules we should follow. It's like a black hole.”

The result of WeChat’s pro-Biden tilt was evident in the 2020 Chinese-American presidential vote. Trump made significant gains among Asian-Americans, increasing his share of votes dramatically from 18 percent in 2016 to 30 percent in 2020. This increase in support included an especially large boost among Korean-, Vietnamese-, and Indian-American voters (twenty-eight, twenty-five, and thirteen percentage points, respectively). However, his increase in support among Chinese-Americans, which includes Taiwanese, was noticeably smaller: seven percentage points. While some may argue this dampening was due to the Trump administration’s proposed WeChat ban, the 5:1 ratio of petition signatories supporting the ban to those opposing it suggests that a significant part of the Chinese community was sympathetic.

Countering the CCP’s influence tactics in a free society like the United States will always be difficult. By leveraging a wide range of non-state individuals and organizations, the Chinese party-state penetrates society in ways that our democratic culture finds hard to grasp, much less confront. WeChat adds a powerful lever to this mix by enabling the Chinese party-state’s propaganda machine to manage the Chinese-speaking public square in America. Given the difficulties of divesting, fixing, and monitoring the app, Washington should simply ban it.

Dr. Seth Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He lived in China for seven years.

Image: Shutterstock.