Wu Qian can’t take his eyes off the phone. She tirelessly checks the Telegram’s dozen Chinese-language chat rooms, where thousands of conservative Chinese-Americans discuss news, politics – and, at times, even QAnon group plots.
The 33-year-old Australian researcher, who has asked that her real name not be used in this report, is tiptoeing, undercover, through these far-right Chinese networks. Your goal is to understand how disinformation circulates among these groups.
“I see a lot of misinformation every day,” Qian said. “And I am curious to verify its origins.”
She started noticing a larger wave of fake news related to the pandemic in the Chinese diaspora in mid-2020, when the coronavirus swept the globe.
To combat the spread of so much fake news, she organized a group of hundreds of volunteer news checkers. Its goal was to debunk these false stories, but it didn’t take long for these digital environments to be dominated by a strong stream of rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding the U.S. presidential election that took place last year.
False allegations of fraud, in particular, have spread like wildfire among extremely conservative Chinese immigrants in North America – a small but important group among diaspora communities.
“They are politically active and often act collectively,” explains Qian.
Most of the members of these discussion forums are strong supporters of former President Donald Trump, identify as Christians, and have very critical views of the Chinese Communist Party.
The researcher says she doesn’t post anything to Telegram groups. She just watches the conversations. Meanwhile, other chat participants exchange tens of thousands of messages every day.
Donations to the Proyd Boys
In December 2020, Qian identified a movement calling for fundraising for the Proud Boys.
It is an extreme right-wing group classified by the Canadian government as a terrorist “neofascist organization”.
The “pot” was to cover the medical costs of members injured at a pro-Trump rally in Washington, the US capital, which had taken place a few days earlier.
The message began with a poignant phrase in Chinese: “Don’t let those who lead the way to freedom struggle with thistles and thorns,” followed by rose and heart emojis, plus, of course, links to a crowdfunding site (collective financing, in Portuguese).
It should be noted that the Proud Boys are an anti-immigration group. But in the eyes of the Sino-American far right, they are fighting the Communist forces for freedom.
The fundraising message was shared among several Telegram groups and reached tens of thousands of curators within hours.
“How many more [doações], better, ”the fundraising organizers wrote.
A dozen donors have declared on the crowdfunding site that they are Americans or Canadians whose family members are from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. Some of them left messages, wishing the injured members of the Proud Boys “a speedy recovery”.
In less than a month, the virtual kitten raised more than $ 100,000 (R $ 525,000), according to data recorded by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a whistleblower website. This issue has also been verified by BBC News.
Of the nearly 1,000 individual contributions, more than 80% came from donors with Chinese surnames.
A Chinese-American woman who donated $ 500 (R $ 2.6,000) told USA Today: “You have to understand how we feel. We came out of communist China and we really appreciate what we are going through here.
Rise of the Sino-American Right
In the United States, Chinese immigrants have become a growing force in conservative politics.
Many are being pushed to the right by their opposition to positive policies, which aim to reduce inequalities in areas such as education and work, but are seen by some Chinese Americans as detrimental to opportunities for their children and grandchildren.
Anti-Communist beliefs also play an important role in mobilizing this group, as some believed that the harsh policies of the Trump administration would put pressure on Beijing and ultimately lead to the downfall of the Communist regime.
“In the history of the United States, Trump is the president who has supported human rights the most in China,” said a Chinese immigrant living in the city of Los Angeles.
As Beijing tightened its grip and increased military pressure in recent months, a growing number of Hong Kong and Taiwanese citizens were pinning their hopes on the “hard on China” stance that was one of Trump’s banners.
And to top it off, the pandemic brought the possibility of an unlikely alliance between the Chinese diaspora and American conservatives, as the governments in Washington and Beijing clashed over the origins of covid-19.
For opponents, blaming China for not containing the virus within its borders is an opportunity to condemn the Communist government.
Meanwhile, the US right understands that China’s criticism of the pandemic distracts attention from Trump’s internal policies, which have led to the country’s highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths to date.
The alliance between Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, and Guo Wengui, a Chinese businessman in exile, is one example. The duo are involved in a vast network that spreads misinformation about alleged electoral fraud, covid-19 vaccines and QAnon stories on various social media.
To top it off, Chinese immigrants often ignore traditional news sites when consuming the news, according to First Draft, a nonprofit that fights disinformation.
This is due to language barriers and customs in handling news within this group.
In the Chinese diaspora, many tend to read reports that circulate in more closed and private spaces, such as Telegram message groups – after all, there is already a relationship of trust between the participants there, and all of them. information shared is accepted as truth. , which creates enormous “disinformation sounding chambers”.
“Once you are exposed to fake news networks, it is difficult to get out of this universe,” says Qian.
Rectification of the elections
When pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol in January 2021, there was a frenzy among members of the China-US far-right.
In Telegram discussion forums, people were going “beyond enthusiasm,” Qian recalls. They supported the rioters and celebrated the “turnaround” in the results of the presidential election.
That same day, the fundraising for the Proud Boys was marked by a further increase in donations. An anonymous benefactor wrote in Chinese that they should “prevent Satan from stealing the elections.”
In the private groups, many members had even planned the logistics of the pro-Trump rally in Washington: they ordered T-shirts with the inscription “Sino-Americans for Trump” and booked buses that would leave from different cities to flood. United States. Capital city.
On January 6, more than 100 Chinese Americans were in Washington and joined the rest of the protesters in the march against the election results. In the crowd, dozens waved US flags, shouted pro-Trump slogans, and held up signs reading “End of Tyranny.” End of the CCP [Partido Comunista Chinês]”.
A protester told a conservative YouTube channel that the day would mark a new era for Chinese Americans.
“We have truly become Americans. We have finally entered the political sphere of the country,” he said in Mandarin.
It is not known how many of these people even invaded the Capitol, but videos of the attack on Congress and all the unrest went viral in message groups with members of the Chinese diaspora.
In one of these documents, a man shouts in Mandarin the preamble to the Constitution of the United States.
Qian believes that although these Chinese-American protesters feel empowered by freedom and democracy in the United States, they are surrounded by political disinformation, which hinders their interpretation of the facts.
During the fateful protests in January, Qian understands that the protesters “wanted to show the power of the people to lawmakers, but they had no idea of the consequences of their actions.”
When a large majority of Americans began to condemn the attack on Capitol Hill, many Telegram groups quickly deleted the history of riot-related messages, the researcher noted.
In recent months, discussion of Trump’s fraud allegations has subsided, but discussion forums remain active: Members are now focusing their attention on covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories and alleged links of current President Joe Biden with China.
Many believe the rumors that Biden has close ties to Beijing. For that, they evoke the commercial contacts maintained by their son, Hunter Biden, with companies of the country located in Asia.
Recently, when the US president gave a speech on China and left out a few words, participants in these discussion forums concluded that the US leader was “sending a signal,” Qian recalls.
The situation right now may even be calmer. But in the secret corners of the Internet, the Sino-American far right is on the lookout for the next political storm.