Imagine nationwide demonstrations, mobilized primarily via a Chinese social media platform and involving tens of thousands of people, spanning more than 40 cities on the same day.
Such a scenario is unthinkable in mainland China, but it’s precisely what happened over the weekend.
China’s Internet censors, who routinely scrub the Web of any calls to collective action, didn’t seem to bat an eye. China’s state-run news media — typically skittish about publicizing protests — paid keen attention to the rallies demanding justice.
Why such lenient treatment? The rallies took place in the United States.
The cause celebre was Peter Liang, a Chinese American rookie cop who fatally shot an unarmed African American man, Akai Gurley, in a dark stairwell in a Brooklyn, N.Y., public housing complex in 2014.
Gurley’s death came amid a nationwide debate about police killings of black men and followed a slew of cases in which grand juries declined to indict white officers implicated in much less ambiguous killings. Liang, 28, maintains the shooting was an accident, but this month he was found guilty of manslaughter, becoming the first New York City Police Department officer convicted in an on-duty death since 2005.
Saturday’s rallies — in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and dozens of other cities — were a rare instance of collective political action by Chinese Americans, many of whom contend Liang was sold out by the NYPD because of his race.
A crucial factor in the turnout was WeChat, a.k.a. Weixin, a social media platform developed by the Chinese company Tencent and used primarily on smartphones.
A cross between WhatsApp and Facebook, the service has flourished in the last several years in China, where Facebook, Twitter, Line and many other foreign social media platforms are blocked by authorities — who have taken note, with horror, of their role in mobilizing protests around the world, from Egypt to China’s western region of Xinjiang.
Though political speech is often scrubbed from WeChat and its “closed” architecture confines a great deal of commentary to narrow “friend groups,” the service has more than half a billion users in China. It is also a must-have for the Chinese diaspora around the world for keeping in touch with friends and staying up to date on the latest (government-approved) news, photos and trends.
Seamlessly mixing posts in multiple languages and offering voice memos, it appeals to both immigrants in the U.S. with no mastery of English and Chinese Americans who speak English better than Mandarin.
“Most of the organizing was done on WeChat. There was some via email, Facebook and Twitter, but very little,” said Jack White, a small-business owner who immigrated from China 13 years ago and is president of the Minnesota Chinese Assn. It was the first time, he said, that he had taken part in such a protest.
“This is one of the great things about America,” said White, who noted that organizing a protest via WeChat in China was unthinkable. “I tell my friends: The U.S. is the best country in the world, although it’s not perfect and has its problems here and there.”
Tian Wang, a Beijing native who lives in Diamond Bar, said he had followed Liang’s case with some ambivalence in 2015. “Somebody died, and he has to be responsible to some degree. I was against going out to protest for a long time,” Wang said. But after the conviction, Wang said, he found fault with the prosecution, the judge and the media, and decided to act.
“There has been a lot of tension between the African American community and cops, and the tension was at a breaking point,” said Wang, 32, a leader of the L.A. protests that drew hundreds downtown. “NYPD made him a scapegoat.”
It wasn’t Wang’s first time in the streets. In 2013, he joined protests criticizing ABC and Jimmy Kimmel after the talk show host aired a segment with a group of children discussing the United States’ $1.3-trillion debt held by China and one suggested the solution was to “kill everyone in China.”
At that time, recalled Wang, WeChat hadn’t yet attained widespread popularity. He estimated that in L.A., organizers collected $50,000 in donations to buy TV, radio and newspaper ads to mobilize protesters and hire buses to drive to ABC’s Burbank headquarters.
“This time, we didn’t have to ask for anything; we could do it all on WeChat for free,” he said. “I and some neighbors spent about $4,500 on banners and signs, but that’s about it.”
Not all the WeChat organizers, though, are in the United States; a number publicizing the rallies are in mainland China.
One, a software engineer named Xie Shuisheng with a doctorate from an American university, runs a WeChat account called Civil Rights. Through that and via a software service he developed called WeiDB.com that enables users to easily publish long opinion pieces on WeChat, Xie has been urging Chinese in the United States to “get involved in American democracy.”
Xie says his Civil Rights channel — which he founded after the Kimmel incident — garnered 10,000 followers in less than 10 days after Liang’s conviction, and its published articles were viewed more than a million times. Now visiting his family in southern China, he has been staying up all night to keep posting updates during the U.S. daytime and says he believes his was the most influential channel in mobilizing demonstrators.
While acknowledging that his activities could veer into sensitive territory, Xie said he is “very careful” about what he posts. “When my parents heard I was doing something like this in the U.S., I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not doing anything against the laws of [China],’” he said.
China’s state-run TV often avoids showing demonstrations. But on Sunday, CCTV News devoted numerous segments throughout the day to the U.S. gatherings. The state-run New China News Agency sent reporters in at least four U.S. cities to various rallies, and the official China Daily featured the New York gathering on its front page.
An op-ed in Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid, took the opportunity to highlight inequality in America, bemoaning “the obvious double standards toward different races that has made people furious” and calling Chinese Americans “a model group in the U.S.”
“They work hard, pay taxes on time, they don’t miss a credit card payment, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood and family. However, a majority of them are not active in politics and have relatively low voting rates. This means they are easily overlooked or discriminated against.”
Some people have accused the Chinese government of fomenting the protests, but Xie called the idea “nonsense.”
Though Saturday’s rallies in the U.S. indicate the potential power of WeChat to bring people into the streets — if left uncensored — human rights activists say China is likely to keep a tight rein on the platform, at least at home.
“Social media platforms like WeChat have served as powerful means of spreading information, raising awareness and organizing in recent years, especially in relatively small-scale ‘bread and butter’ disputes that concern specific workplaces or local concerns,” said William Nee, a China-focused researcher at Amnesty International.
“However, the government systematically censors WeChat,” he said. “It can close down accounts, and it punishes people for their political speech, so there are obvious limits on the effectiveness of WeChat as an organizing tool.”
Special correspondent Chuan Xu, Times staff writer Jonathan Kaiman and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.