Read: The Harvard case is about the future of affirmative action.
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.