Rose Luqiu Luwei, a senior journalist and director of the MA program in International Journalism Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, recently published a research paper analyzing how WeChat is being used in Chinese government censorship campaigns. The article, titled “Loyalty to WeChat Beyond National Borders: A Theory of the Media System’s Dependence on Techno-nationalism Theory” provides a multidisciplinary analysis of why the Chinese diaspora is loyal to WeChat – a key arm of the Chinese censorship system.
Co-authored by political scientist Professor Kang Yi, the research examines how Chinese government policies and WeChat, the most influential new medium and communication tool used by Chinese communities on the mainland and beyond. sea, mediate the interaction of the Chinese diaspora with the local population and host societies. Researchers qualify this global techno-political force as “techno-nationalism” which often influences the habits, opinions and behaviors of users.
Global Voices Editor-in-Chief for East Asia, Oiwan Lam, interviewed Rose Luqiu about her five-year research process and the challenges of techno-nationalism. The interview was conducted in Cantonese via video chat and transcribed into English.
OL: Oiwan Lam
Luqiu: Rose Luqiu Luwei
OL: When did you start your research and how did you get this research idea?
Luqiu: I started this research in 2016 during the US presidential elections. I was doing my doctorate. in the United States, and have joined several Chinese diaspora discussion groups on WeChat.
The first incident that caught my attention was a campaign to support ethnic Chinese candidate Lindy Li in Pennsylvania. Mobilization, such as crowdfunding, via WeChat groups, has been very effective. The political rhetoric of the mobilization was that the Chinese should support it because it was born in Sichuan, China, and therefore could represent Chinese voices in Congress.
The second incident was the advocacy of Chinese-born police officer Peter Liang over his appeal on the Akai Gurley manslaughter charge. Thanks to WeChat, the Chinese diaspora has organized rallies in major cities across the United States. I went to one of the largest gatherings in Philadelphia and observed that some Fujian kinship groups were leading the protests. I began to feel that the mobilization was not so spontaneous because Chinese kinship groups abroad often have some kind of association with the Chinese embassy and consulates.
Then came the presidential elections. Every WeChat group I joined had themes against Hilary Clinton in support of Trump. Hilary Clinton is firmer on human rights issues, and the Chinese authorities did not want her to win. As for Donald Trump, people knew little about his political orientation at the time. There was a lot of interesting election talk about these WeChat groups, and Trump supporters were able to dominate the debates.
After returning to Hong Kong, I included mainland Chinese diaspora groups in my research.
OL: What explains the loyalty of the Chinese diaspora to WeChat? And how do Chinese media policies and techno-nationalism reach global reach through WeChat?
Luqiu: A major factor is censorship or “forced loyalty”. Other communication tools like Facebook and Twitter are not available in China. WeChat has a very special [monopoly] status in China. No matter where you are, if you want to keep in touch with your friends and relatives in Mainland China, WeChat remains their only choice. Also, if you need to do business or travel to China, you cannot avoid using the tool. WeChat is a technology company. Yet, due to the censorship policy in China, when chatting on WeChat, other users are constantly reminding you to avoid bringing up sensitive topics, otherwise the group would be deleted and the group admin would be in trouble. So, to protect your friends who are in mainland China and avoid future trouble when you return to China, you will practice self-censorship.
The second factor is inertia or “habitual loyalty”. Of course, language is a barrier in the host country. While the public channels on WeChat offer very rich information about the host country without such barriers, they become the main sources of information for the diaspora. WeChat has tens of millions of public channels, but they are all subject to the content framework set by the Chinese government. Although the public channels that broadcast news and commentary appear to be owned and operated by individuals or private companies, many are still affiliated with public media or funded by the Red Capital.
WeChat’s dual system and asymmetric information flow
OL: Can you clarify how the public channels operating abroad are controlled by the Chinese censorship system?
Luqiu: WeChat implemented a dual system in 2014: Weixin and WeChat. The latter is to serve the world market. The information flow between the two systems is asymmetric as public channels registered under Weixin are accessible worldwide and in mainland China. On the other hand, if it was registered under WeChat, the content would not be accessible in China. Seemingly independent public channels such as Gangpiaoquan 港 漂 圈 and North American Overseas Students Daily 北子 留學生 日報 are registered under Weixin in mainland China with Chinese phone numbers even though their target audiences are outside of China. They are very influential and have a huge following. However, there is a trade-off in the Weixin system as they have to comply with mainland China’s censorship system.
Even in more private communication channels such as group chat, sensitive messages sent by overseas Chinese are hidden from other mainland Chinese group members. Without any feedback, users would get into the habit of avoiding political discussions on WeChat.
Although the research looked at three different groups of WeChat users in other countries, their usage patterns, especially the practice of self-censorship, are the same.
OL: What are the impacts of such techno-fidelity on the user and the host countries?
Luqiu: It affects the integration of the Chinese diaspora into the society of the host countries. Although they have settled down, they are somewhat separated from the mainstream culture as they maintain their original social network and do not need to interact with the locals. They have all the information resources they need on WeChat, and as the circle of the Diaspora continues to expand, they also develop a strong sense of Chinese Diaspora identity.
OL: In the introduction to your research brief, you mentioned Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order banning WeChat for security and privacy reasons. What is your opinion on this kind of policy?
Luqiu: According to media reports, the decision is linked to the presidential elections. The controversy touches on the nature of WeChat, whether it is viewed as a foreign agent or a tool. People in an open company should have the confidence to compete with WeChat in the user market and gradually change the behavior of their users. However, I can also see that a public company can be very fragile because there are certain rules that you have to follow while others can profit from them. The competition is therefore not so equal or fair. In principle, we should all stand up for freedom of expression and accept all kinds of content platforms. But on the other hand, the other side practices strict censorship while taking advantage of public companies.
OL: People in hospitality companies are increasingly anxious about WeChat. In countries like Canada, Australia and the United States, some fear that mobilizing on WeChat could result in an election campaign or interference in local politics. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with such anxiety?
Luqiu: I think we have to consider political participation as a positive development among the Chinese diaspora because it is a way for them to interact and integrate into local societies. People have free will and they value the core values in open societies. The stake is the systematic exploitation of the tool which instrumentalizes the users in order to achieve certain political agendas. A political level approach, such as anti-monopoly, to create a ground of equality and justice in the new media market would be more appropriate.