WeChat Ban and SF's Chinatown: How Trump's Plan Could Hurt Housing Rights Campaigns

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Protesters in San Francisco rallied against Veritas, a property management company, as part of a 2019 demonstration organized on WeChat. (Courtesy of Tenants Together)

"Renters fight rent hikes!"

Those words streaked across the social media sphere in San Francisco in September last year. But they weren't read in English, and they weren't sent on Facebook, Twitter or even NextDoor.

No, the slogan was written in Chinese and sent on the world's third-largest mobile messaging app: WeChat.

Voice-memos, photos of picket signs and long text chains for scheduling purposes sent by the Chinese Progressive Association on WeChat bore fruit. Monolingual-Cantonese speaking Chinese tenants joined other organizers on the streets against San Francisco's largest landlord, Veritas — which operates more than 250 buildings in the city — to protest rent-hikes to pay for construction.

Now that organizing tool is threatened.

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President Donald Trump issued an executive order in early August that may lead to a ban on social media giants TikTok and WeChat on Sept. 20, because he says the two Chinese companies pose a threat to national security. A nonprofit group, the WeChat Users Alliance, filed a suit against the Trump administration Friday to halt his ban, calling it a violation of constitutional rights and claiming it targets an oft-marginalized group, according to The Hill.

Certainly, WeChat has drawn critique from even its own community, having censored messages in China — including reportedly suppressing political speech and blocking keywords surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the Chinese Progressive Association, grassroots organizers and politicians agree that in San Francisco, a ban on WeChat would hamper a major communication tool within the monolingual Chinese community, particularly in one of the city's most cherished neighborhoods: Chinatown.

Pillar of the Community

San Francisco's Chinese community reads, watches and listens to the news in their own language and dialects: newspapers like Sing Tao Daily and the World Journal, or broadcast entities like Sing Tao Chinese Radio and TV station KTSF.

Because Chinatown is often a key first stop for recent Chinese immigrants who may not know English, those media outlets are depended on to inform a community who don't have access to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner or even KQED, for that matter.

"Chinese media, I think not just in San Francisco, but in the Bay Area, I think plays a crucial role in how the monolingual immigrant community gets their information," said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center. "For as long as I've worked in the community, Chinese media in some form or another has been the primary source of information for folks in the Chinese monolingual community in particular."

The Chinese Progressive Association's staff uses WeChat's voice memo function to directly message a Single Room Occupancy resident, Ah Ying, to bring their family to the Veritas rent passthrough march. The image in the chat is the Housing Rights Committee's march flyer, in Chinese. (WeChat Screenshot)

The monolingual and bilingual Chinese community, then, has its own media ecosystem. But in recent years, WeChat has emerged as its own pillar in that ecosystem.

After its launch in 2010, it started as a way for people to affordably communicate across the world, expanding in popularity in the Chinese community locally and in similar communities across the country.

But that popularity also fed the platform's growth in information-sharing, a change that paralleled new features in the app, including a Facebook-like "timeline."

Two candidates competing to represent San Francisco's Richmond District on the Board of Supervisors, Marjan Philhour and Connie Chan, both said they utilize WeChat to reach out to monolingual Chinese voters, an important community group in their campaigns.

"In campaigning, especially since it is not safe to proactively go out and meet people face to face, WeChat is one place to organize and meet the community where they are," Philhour said.

Much of that campaigning encompasses housing rights. Chan said her campaign often sends notifications about the city and state's eviction moratoriums to voters on WeChat. "That's been critical to a lot of new immigrants who are actually still fluent in Chinese," no matter how long they've been here, she said.

Mason Lee, a Chinese community liaison from San Francisco Mayor London Breed's office, said more members of the Chinese community reach out to Breed on WeChat than by phone or email. The Mayor's office often uses WeChat as a resource for small businesses or informing tenants about their rights.

The platform's growth is still historically new and has caught some off guard. Yeung said his organization, CCDC, recently completed a survey of residents in the Single Room Occupancy developments they operate. Other SRO hotels often house vulnerable, low-income families who live in single rooms but use shared kitchens and bathrooms.

"We always like to ask, 'Where do you get your source of information?' And for SRO families, it was shocking to me that more than half relied on WeChat for information, you know, versus Chinese media, which really kind of shows you the evolution and growth of the platform in our community," Yeung said.

And even as the platform grew as a news source, it grew as an organizing source as well.

Organizing for Themselves

Since 1972, the Chinese Progressive Association has organized its community in Chinatown, and beyond, to push for better wages, protect tenants and advocate for themselves.

Nowadays, much of that organizing gets off the ground on WeChat. KC Ho, a community organizer at the Chinese Progressive Association, said the organization's dependence on WeChat goes beyond the occasional, simple two-way message.

"Over the years we've also grown our groups, and WeChat groups associated with us," Ho said. There are groups, within groups, within groups — all communicating to harness tenants' rights.

Chinese Progressive Association organizes 50 single room occupancy hotels in Chinatown, which each can house a dozen living units, or more than a hundred. They host group chats between tenants who are organizing their own buildings, and group chats with tenants across each building, too. The uses range from the mundane — like settling arguments with landlords — to the eventful, like the aforementioned rent hike protest.

So why not just use a new app?

Many people those organizations are reaching on WeChat are seniors who are slow to adopt new technology, organizers told KQED. So while adopting a new platform might happen, reaching wider adoption could potentially take years. Perhaps most importantly, the growth of WeChat in organizing was predicated on its use in people's personal lives, not the other way around.

Organizers rely on it so heavily, "It would be pretty devastating losing WeChat," Ho said.

Many older adults they work with don't use Facebook because they use WeChat, she said, and younger members they organize "don't care about Facebook."

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Angela Zhou is one of those community members who organize using WeChat for the Chinese Progressive Association. She came to the United States from China in 2004 and used to live in the kind of SRO hotels that the Chinese Progressive Association organizes.

Now, Zhou said, she uses those skills to mobilize other parents around school issues. Her own son is 14, and her daughter is 20.

"We create WeChat groups for our parents for those schools with short messages, announcements so that parents can actually stay updated on what's going on. Because even if they get a letter from the school, it might be a really complicated and long message, so having a quick group with short messages has actually been really helpful," Zhou said in Cantonese, with Ho translating for KQED.

Zhou relies on WeChat to turn out parents for protests and to ask for political support to advocate on their behalf. Losing the prominent social media platform wouldn't just hurt the community emotionally to no longer communicate with family overseas, she said, but would cut off an important organizing tool to fight for their rights.

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"It would really demoralize me and make it much harder to stay motivated to participate politically," Zhou said.