The App at the Heart of the Movement to End Affirmative Action

“WeChat is a monster. There’s nothing like it on Earth.”

Jacquelyn Martin / AP / Brian Snyder / Reuter / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

OiYan Poon stumbled upon WeChat largely by accident.

Poon is a professor at Colorado State University who studies the racial politics of higher education. For years she had consistently found that most Asian Americans supported affirmative action, but in 2014, something surprised her: A fledgling network of politically savvy Asian Americans had derailed a Democrat-backed ballot initiative in California that would’ve rescinded the state’s long-standing ban on race-conscious admissions. These activists—with their loud, recurring demonstrations, scathing op-eds, pro-Republican canvassing, and roundtable discussions on Chinese-language talk shows—had materialized unexpectedly, at least to Poon.

Determined to learn more, Poon in 2016 took to her typical research methods—convening a team of students and colleagues to help her pore through court filings, news stories, social-media posts, and the like—in an effort to track these dissenters down. But the few activists who did have an online footprint didn’t respond to Poon’s inquiries. The professor continued to flounder until she took the advice of an acquaintance and opened an account on WeChat, the popular messaging app based in China. The virtual gathering place was a hub for these activists.

Once comprising a relatively small, California-centric group of well-educated Chinese immigrants, this network of activists has connected like-minded people across the country, many of whom are part of separate groups all campaigning against affirmative action—including the organization behind the pending federal lawsuit accusing Harvard of anti-Asian discrimination, as well as a group that recently filed a lawsuit against the University of California in pursuit of admissions and enrollment data. The activists’ growing savvy and resulting sway, however, contradict the narrative painted by public-opinion data, which consistently show that most Asian Americans support affirmative action. So why was it that these activists had managed to dominate headlines and distort the narrative around Asian Americans and their relationship with race-conscious admissions? The answer to that question, Poon may have inadvertently discovered, could be found in WeChat.

“There was no such mobilization [among the Chinese American] community before WeChat happened,” says Steven Chen, a Los Angeles–area computer engineer who immigrated to the United States from mainland China in the late 1980s in pursuit of a graduate degree.

Text messages and phone calls are WeChat’s bread-and-butter functions, but the app does a lot more: People can hail taxis or share car rides, exchange money, order takeout, and shop online, among a litany of other mundane tasks and interactions. A smartphone’s WeChat widget, in other words, is kind of like a portal into a sea of more widgets; iMessage, Skype, Uber, Venmo, and so on, all in one place. Every day, according to company data, an average of more than 900 million people use the app, many of them utilizing its various social-networking functions to engage with folks they’ve never met in person. One Chinese American immigrant I spoke with, Jing Liu, told me that she had met most of her present-day friends through the app.

“WeChat is a monster,” says Janelle Wong, a political scientist and professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland. “There’s nothing like it on Earth.”

Launched in 2011, WeChat first gained traction among immigrants who used it to stay in touch with relatives and keep up on current events in mainland China. In the years since, the app has taken on a life of its own in the United States, becoming what Chen has described as a “virtual Chinatown.”

In reflecting on the app’s reach in the U.S., Chi Zhang, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California who studies WeChat, pointed to its function as a form of ethnic media. By connecting Chinese American immigrants to their homeland and by providing them the kinds of culturally relevant news tidbits seldom covered by mainstream American news outlets, she says, it “fosters their collective memory of their political struggles.” But, Zhang notes, WeChat also helps bridge the Chinese American community with broader U.S. society; it’s the place these immigrants go to stay abreast of everything from Supreme Court developments to the goings-on of their city council. In this sense, WeChat allows Chinese American users to feel at once more Chinese and more American. And this dual empowerment helped enable the Chinese American uprising against affirmative action.

A growing body of survey data shows that Chinese Americans—the United States’ largest Asian ethnic group—are almost single-handedly responsible for what’s been affirmative action’s slight decline in popularity among Asian Americans as a whole. In a 2012 AAPI Data survey, close to 80 percent of Chinese respondents said they favored policies that promote better access to higher education for black students and other minorities; by 2016, the number was roughly half that. Interestingly, that reversal was driven by Chinese Americans who were born abroad, according to Wong. Crunching the numbers from another survey, Wong found that among respondents who said they had an opinion (a significant portion did not), the amount of support among immigrants from China was more than 20 percentage points less than that of U.S.-born Chinese Americans.

The Chinese Americans driving this movement are highly educated, many of them with an undergraduate degree in a STEM field from one of China’s extremely competitive universities and having arrived in the U.S. with the help of selective-recruitment immigration policies. These educational and immigration experiences tend, in turn, to shape their attitudes about college-admissions policies. While Wong and other scholars cautioned against buying into model-minority stereotypes, activists regularly cited such traits in explaining their fervent opposition to affirmative action.

For example, Crystal Lu, an affirmative-action opponent who immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, says that in Chinese culture “there are no shortcuts” for doing well academically or otherwise. Lu received a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford and today is president of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation. “We truly believe that education is the one single enabler for social mobility,” she told me, “and with that philosophy our children … [learn to] think about the long term and forget about the short-term pleasures like watching TV, playing games, and going to parties.” Many of her fellow activists have generally conservative political views and support Donald Trump, whose administration is investigating allegations against Yale similar to those at the center of the Harvard lawsuit. “We realized our American dream, our aspiration to move up the social ladder, was being stripped away,” Lu says. “If we do not fight, then our whole cultural heritage collapses … That’s heartening to see—that this group that had been really [politically] apathetic, really quiet, is stirred and provoked and stimulated, and started to do something that’s completely opposite to their nature.”

Is WeChat just where these people happened to be, and so that’s the tool they used? Or is there something specific about how this app works that amplified and expanded this movement? WeChat did not respond to numerous requests for comment. But virtually everyone I interviewed for this story agreed that this movement wouldn’t be where it is today—a well-organized network of activists with leaders in every major U.S. city that has garnered widespread media coverage and is poised to bring affirmative action back to the Supreme Court—if it weren’t for WeChat.

Why? A key reason has to do with the way in which information travels within WeChat’s confines.

As long as she fulfills a very basic set of criteria, pretty much any casual user can be approved as an “official account,” becoming her own news-media outlet and generating unique content or aggregating information from other sources. Much of that information is disseminated via closed chat groups, where as many as 500 members each discuss a wide array of topics, including the Harvard suit and college admissions.

The result is, to borrow Zhang’s words, a “self-contained news ecosystem” that at its best builds and bridges communities and at its worst breeds echo chambers and facilitates the spread of misinformation. As private gathering places, the groups rely on gatekeepers who effectively foster tribes—ideological safe spaces that can intensify emotions around a sensitive issue. According to Zhang and other observers, this emotional underpinning combined with the limited scrutiny of official accounts allows extreme viewpoints to spread. I reviewed a number of conversations in WeChat groups whose focus includes affirmative action and found that in some of them antiblack racism was common, as was vitriol toward members who pushed back against the dominant beliefs of the group. Such commentary often included misinformation, such as unfounded accusations that Ivy League institutions have Asian quotas.

The fact that the affirmative-action debate is so emotional, however, also reveals the limitations in attributing to WeChat the current state of Chinese American political engagement. WeChat is simply “a tool” that enabled the movement to spread beyond the core coalition of activists whose political views long preceded the app, says Jack Ouyang, the vice president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, the now-vast network of affirmative-action opponents that drove the 2014 crusade in California.

From her vantage point as an expert on WeChat as a vehicle for political mobilizing, Zhang, who hasn’t yet figured out what her stance on affirmative action is, echoed Ouyang’s point. “Especially at this moment, there’s a real sense that Chinese Americans who otherwise are pretty invisible … could change the direction that the country is heading, and that itself is very energizing,” Zhang says. “So I think there is a certain energy and momentum that people who oppose affirmative action are latching on to.” Simply put: Activists were already on WeChat, so that’s where they leveraged their existing energy and momentum. Had they dedicated more of their organizing to Facebook, the same could have happened there.

“WeChat’s impact has to be understood as an information environment as a whole—it’s kind of like a fishbowl in which you have these different narratives that kind of cohere together, one of which is the neglect and marginalization of Chinese Americans,” Zhang says. When she tries to put herself in the shoes of one of these activists—say, someone who immigrated to the U.S. relatively recently and isn’t familiar with the history of racial oppression in the country—she can see why they have taken to this cause. It’s easy to see how that person might feel especially provoked if she herself feels she was held to higher standards in her pursuit of college admission or a good job. “I don’t see how they would support affirmative action,” Zhang says, “without significant persuasion otherwise.”

Karen Yuan contributed research.