Chinese Diaspora and Social Media: Negotiating Transnational Space
- Wanning SunWanning SunPublic Communication Program, University of Technology Sydney
The period since about the late 1980s has witnessed the phenomenal ascent of the People’s Republic of China as a political, economic, and military power on the global stage. China’s rise has engendered an earnest, if perhaps not well-executed, agenda to promote a more attractive image of the country. In this period China has also experienced a rapid escalation in outbound migration to various parts of the world, with a small number of countries in the global West emerging as the preferred destinations for Chinese migrants, and, in some cases, China becoming their biggest source of new migrants. In the United States, China replaced Mexico as the top sending country in 2018. In Canada, mainland China has taken over from Hong Kong and Taiwan as the largest source of Chinese immigration, while in Australia, China now has the second-largest migrant population behind the United Kingdom, and has only recently slipped into second position behind India as the nation’s leading source of new immigrants. These developments have made China’s diaspora the biggest in the world. In the eyes and minds of the Chinese government, Chinese migrants are important potential assets in its efforts to push its global soft power agenda.
The period of accelerated outbound migration from China coincided with the emergence of first the internet, and then digital media—in particular, the most popular Chinese social media platform, WeChat (Weixin in Chinese). Against the backdrop of these developments at the macro level, the topic of social media and the Chinese diaspora becomes a question of considerable significance. Some analysts argue that the dramatically enlarged mainland Chinese diaspora has effectively become an instrument of China’s soft power agenda, while others point out the positive role that members of this group play in their host communities. In particular, they highlight the potential of Chinese-language social media—and in particular WeChat, which is widely used by Chinese people both within and outside China—to have a beneficial impact on Chinese immigrants’ prospects for social integration in the countries where they now reside. The pursuit of these questions entails a brief foray into a number of research areas, including the Chinese diaspora, the history and transformation of Chinese-language diasporic media, the infrastructural and regulatory framework of WeChat, and public diplomacy via diaspora. Addressing these questions also has the benefit of broadening, and possibly enriching, the concepts of digital diaspora, on the one hand, and digital citizenship, on the other.
The Chinese Diaspora
Notwithstanding debates regarding the different meanings, phases, and types of diaspora (Cohen, 2008), the term “diaspora” broadly and loosely refers to the dispersal of any population from its original land and its settlement in one or various new territories (Alonso & Oiarzabal, 2010). Most diaspora studies scholars see little need to be precise about what constitutes a diaspora, and instead are more interested in diaspora as a network of discourses and practices, or what Clifford (1997, p. 244) refers to as the experiences of displacement and of “constructing homes away from home.”
The term “Chinese diaspora” mostly refers to those Chinese living outside mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, all of which are usually described as “Chinese societies” (Ma, 2003; Tan, 2013a). While this characterization seems straightforward in English, its semantic ambiguity, when translated into Chinese, becomes evident. Fine but important distinctions exist between huaqiao (overseas Chinese) and huaren (Chinese overseas). Starting from the beginning of the period of economic reform in 1978 and following the large-scale waves of outbound migration from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since the 1980s, China has sought to clarify the meaning of huaqiao, using it to refer to Chinese citizens living abroad. As for those Chinese who have adopted the citizenship of their country of residence (China does not allow dual citizenship), they are now usually referred to as haiwai huaren (Li & Li, 2013). Existing scholarly work on the Chinese diaspora inevitably considers the spatial and temporal dimensions of the concept. Geographers studying the Chinese diaspora, such as Laurence Ma (2003, p. 8), argue for a spatial turn, claiming that “diaspora can be a process, a group of people, a geographic area and a spatial network.” This approach highlights the significance of “connectivity, exchange, and the spread of people, goods, ideas and information across networked space and among a number of places with varying degrees of intensity and directionality” (p. 8). To other scholars, the formation of diaspora is a matter of time. The term “diaspora” is typically applied to “those in the third, fourth, and fifth generations of assimilation” (Brinkerhoff, 2009, p. 31). Shih (2007) argues that one’s existence as a member of the diaspora, given enough time, will eventually end, as one’s transnational sensibility progressively and irreversibly moves further away from the culture one migrates from to the culture one migrates to.
The Chinese diaspora is the biggest diaspora community in the world. A figure published in 2012 puts its total population at somewhere between 30 and 40 million (Tan, 2013a). In historical terms, about 75% of Chinese overseas, most of whom speak Cantonese or other southern Chinese dialects, are in Asia, especially Southeast Asia (Tan, 2013a). However, China’s open-door policy starting toward the end of the 1970s and the subsequent large-scale outbound migration from the PRC have led to a significant increase in the size of the Mandarin-speaking population in other parts of the world. Large numbers of individuals from the PRC, and to a lesser extent from Hong Kong and Taiwan, have used the “skills” and “family reunion” categories to migrate to what is often referred to as the “global West,” including English-speaking countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as some Western European countries. For instance, with its reputation for a clean environment and relaxed lifestyle, Australia has become an attractive destination for China’s middle class. In 1996, the estimated number of ethnic Chinese in Australia was 343,523, but by 2001 it had exceeded 555,500, and continued to rise to around 866,200 in 2011, with three-quarters being first-generation immigrants. There are currently about 1.2 million people of Chinese origin in Australia, more than half (677,240) of whom were born in mainland China and speak Mandarin in the home (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020). This means that roughly 5% of Australia’s total population are ethnic Chinese. Furthermore, Chinese investments in many parts of the developing world, such as Africa, the Pacific, and South America, have also contributed to the rapid growth of the Chinese population in these regions.
Although the label “Chinese diaspora” is often used by scholars and the media, the diasporic Chinese population is marked by considerable diversity in terms of place of origin, language and dialect, social experience, cultural sensibility, and history and trajectory of migration, as well as by differences in politics, religion, ethnicity, and ideological beliefs. Not only are there generational differences and varying degrees of connectedness between old and new migrant cohorts, but there are also differences in identity politics between, for instance, mainlanders and Hong Kongers, between Han Chinese and Uighurs, and between Falun Gong supporters and PRC supporters. There is also much diversity in terms of class background, education level, and cosmopolitanism, as well as in individuals’ political distance from the PRC government, even within the Mandarin-speaking migrant cohort.
These developments in the patterns of migration, as well as changes in the demographic makeup of the Chinese diaspora since the turn of the century, have significantly challenged a long-held assumption that Chinese-language communities tend to live in “ghettos” or ethnic enclaves—the so-called Chinatown phenomenon. Research on recent Chinese migrants in Australian suburbs (e.g., Gao-Miles, 2017) has indicated that conventional notions of ethnic enclaves and “ethnoburbs” are becoming increasingly less accurate ways of making sense of Chinese migrants’ modes of sociality, and that notions of interethnicity and transspatiality are more useful ways of conceptualizing their place-making practices. Similarly, in the United States, one study of an entire spectrum of settlement forms among Chinese migrants points to the need to “go beyond Chinatown” and to “reconceptualize” Chinese settlement practices (Li, 2005).
Regardless of where diasporic Chinese communities are located in the world, their identities have invariably been bound up with their struggles against racial prejudice and migration discrimination in the country they now call home—whether it be through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States (Railton, 2013), the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia Policy) in Australia (Jakubowicz, 2011), the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act in Canada (Mar, 2010), or similar legislation and policies in other countries. Similarly, during different historical eras Chinese diasporic communities have needed to reckon in one way or another with their host country’s shifting policies in relation to its immigrants—whether these policies be directed toward assimilation, integration, or ethnicization (Zhou & Kim, 2006).
Early Diasporic Chinese Media
Like most other mature diaspora communities, the Chinese diaspora is sustained by three key institutions—usually referred to as the “three pillars” (Suryadinata, 1997, p. 12): Chinese social and business networks in the form of a chamber of commerce, origin-specific associations, clans, and kinship organizations; an education system that permits or even encourages Chinese-language schools; and a Chinese-language media industry with sizable circulation or ratings figures and some claim to community representation. The third of these pillars—Chinese-language media—tended to develop more or less organically in various diasporic Chinese locations wherever and whenever there were a sizable number of Chinese migrants. Despite their diverse demographic contexts, diasporic Chinese media from the beginning have invariably played a crucial role in negotiating the tensions among divergent views and interests within Chinese communities, representing and communicating the sentiments of those communities to the government and mainstream society and reporting the views and opinions of mainstream society back to the communities (Gao, 2006). While the sector initially featured mostly Chinese-language gazettes, newspapers, and magazines, some mature Chinese diaspora communities—such as those in the United States, Canada, and Australia—developed to also include Chinese-language radio and television (Gao, 2006; Kong, 2016).
Digital Chinese-Language Media in Diaspora
The history of diasporic Chinese media spans more than a century in some countries, but the advent of a strong digital Chinese-language media sector is necessarily a relatively recent phenomenon. At the turn of the new millennium, Chinese-language websites operated by various Chinese migrant communities in a few countries, especially in the United States, started to proliferate, giving rise to an incipient diasporic Chinese global digital network (Sun, 2002). Like most diasporas, the Chinese diaspora took advantage of the deterritorializing capacity of the internet to maintain connection with their motherland (Sun, 2002), including long-distance nationalism (Anderson, 1998), engaging in numerous kinds of activism in the host country, and facilitating transnational Chinese connections across the globe.
It is impossible to understand the changing formation of the Chinese diaspora without taking into account China’s rise in recent decades. In the late 1990s, keen to improve its national image on the global stage, China launched its expensive and all-out “going global” policy, which was aimed at contesting the hegemonic representation of China by the West by pushing for the internationalization of Chinese media as well as promoting a singular vision of China as a rejuvenated and prosperous civilization (Hu & Ji, 2012). As part of this soft power agenda, the Chinese diaspora has been identified as a key “vessel” with which the Chinese government hopes to carry its messages to the rest of the world (Wanning Sun, 2015).
This soft power agenda posed both threats and opportunities to the existing Chinese-language media-in-diaspora, most of which had a long history of catering to a predominantly Cantonese-speaking readership, and most of which had adopted an independent, sometimes even critical, stance toward the PRC. Those media outlets that were originally established and operated by migrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan were mostly cash-strapped, so they were looking for ways to expand their businesses, which meant that forging partnerships with mainland Chinese media—including state media—became an important option. As a result, diasporic Chinese media organizations have gradually developed myriad location-specific strategies in response to China’s overtures of collaboration. There is evidence to suggest that China’s state media have made significant inroads into the diasporic Chinese media landscape, especially the legacy media (newspapers, radio, and television) (Sun, 2016), and the editorial position adopted by many such media outlets toward China has gradually become more favorable (Sun, 2019a). But the impact of China’s rise and its soft power agenda manifests itself in much more complex ways when it comes to the newly dominant Chinese-language digital/social media-in-diaspora sector.
The newly emerging and still proliferating online-only diasporic media outlets continue to play an important role in disseminating news and information, but they differ greatly from the legacy media in terms of reach, impact, and business model. During the 2010s, Chinese-language digital media at various nodes of the Chinese diaspora grew into a vibrant and extremely complex sector, to the point that they are threatening the sustainability and survival of legacy media outlets. These are mostly comprehensive websites with a news and current affairs component. Some, such as SydneyToday.com, are owned by locally based Chinese media companies; others are subsidiaries of China-based companies. These locally based websites are usually owned, operated, and staffed by young, mostly student migrants from the PRC with university degrees in information technology, business, or media. Mostly financed through advertising revenue, they provide news and current affairs about the host country, in addition to a wide range of information across all aspects of everyday life, including employment, study, housing, finance, real estate, tourism, health, shopping, and eating out. The news and current affairs component of their coverage features stories—both serious and flippant—about the mainstream host society and its Chinese community. News from China tends to be light and soft in nature, usually eschewing serious and politically sensitive topics. These outlets mostly target younger users and students, and give disproportionate coverage to entertainment and celebrity gossip. They generally do not have the resources to generate news content using their own in-house journalists but instead translate news and current affairs from a wide range of mainstream English-language media outlets in their host country. They usually do not feature serious op-ed pages, but their editors do pay close attention to hot-button issues that concern the Chinese community.
While the young media practitioners who run such services are not interested in simply being mouthpieces for China’s propaganda, their selection and framing of stories can often be nationalistic, in favor of China. This means that while their websites usually avoid politically sensitive news about China because of anticipated censorship at the server end, they may effectively give voice to the opinions of the Chinese community on certain controversial issues where China may be in conflict with Australia. They may also function as effective tools for mobilizing action on the part of the Chinese community over contentious issues that threaten to strain their host country’s relationship with China. At the same time, Yu and Sun (2020) also found that WeChat Subscription Accounts in Australia tended to target the Chinese-speaking population in Australia and focused mostly on local news, events, and services. Avoiding publishing politically sensitive content was more of a business decision in order to manage risk than a political decision to support the Chinese government and its ideology. The study found that self-censorship in this case was driven by a desire to survive as a business, not a desire to “toe the Party line,” and that it could not reasonably be interpreted as evidence of the Chinese government’s influence.
With hindsight, the phenomenal development and spread of the diasporic Chinese-language media sector since around 2010 seems inevitable, given a few factors. First, propelled by China’s rise and its growing economic power in the world, the Chinese-speaking diaspora has changed dramatically in terms of its size and demographic composition, mainly due to the accelerated level of global mobility of mainland Chinese people in the business, resources, property investment, education, and tourism sectors, in addition to large-scale outbound permanent migration from the PRC to many countries in the world. The informational needs of these various mobile cohorts are diverse and often location-specific, yet at the same time they are united by a desire to stay connected with families and friends in China, with Mandarin-speaking migrant communities in other diasporic Chinese nodes across the globe, as well as with Chinese-speaking migrants in their host country. Furthermore, technological developments, especially in digital media and communication devices, are radically transforming the ways in which media businesses are run, news is produced, and media content is used. The arrival of WeChat not only revolutionized the ways in which Chinese people socialize, conduct business and work, and partake in consumption, but it also propelled the rapid emergence of an online-only diasporic Chinese digital media sector, in which many services mainly deliver their content via WeChat Subscription Accounts directly to the WeChat app on individuals’ mobile devices.
Since their inception, Chinese-language digital and social media have grown rapidly into a dynamic, diverse, and extremely complex sector, not only in the PRC but also globally. WeChat was launched in January 2011 and was developed by China’s super tech company TenCent, the same company that developed and owns QQ, a Chinese social media platform that predated WeChat. While QQ is still used by some segments of the Chinese population in China, to some extent it has been superseded by WeChat, especially among the Chinese diaspora. Similarly, Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform owned by the Sina Corporation that is often referred to as China’s Twitter, is still widely used in China, especially among the sociocultural elites, but it pales next to WeChat in terms of reach and impact.
Although there is a sizable body of literature discussing various aspects of WeChat and its use in China, research that is focused on WeChat in the Chinese diaspora is only in its infancy. WeChat combines many of the functions of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and PayPal, together with other innovative forms of electronic payment. WeChat has been called a super-sticky all-in-one app and mega platform (Chen, Mao, & Qiu, 2018), and a “digital Swiss Army knife for modern life” (Lee, 2018). This super-app is extremely agile, versatile, and resourceful, and it comes with many features that resonate with traditional Chinese practices, such as sending monetary gifts (“red envelopes”) to friends electronically. In its relatively short life, WeChat has garnered over 1.2 billion active monthly users (Statista, 2020), more than 100 million of whom are outside China (Culpan, 2018). It is central to the interpersonal and public communication practices of Chinese migrants all over the world, having largely surpassed apps such as QQ and Weibo.
Alongside WeChat sits the “new kid on the block”—Douyin, marketed internationally as TikTok, a platform for sharing short videos mostly focused on lip-sync and comedy (Schwedel, 2018). Owned by the Chinese multinational company ByteDance, Douyin was launched in China in 2016 and then as TikTok in most international markets the following year, but it only became available in the United States in 2018 when it merged with Music.ly, a slightly older platform for lip-sync videos (Schwedel, 2018). Unlike international social media giants such as Instagram and Facebook, ByteDance adopts a dual platform structure, running TikTok and Douyin on separate servers with different content, thereby maximizing its capacity to operate outside China’s regulatory framework (Leskin, 2019).
Unlike Douyin/TikTok’s users, however, WeChat’s users both inside and outside China are subject to China’s regulatory framework, albeit to different degrees. Internationally, TikTok has been widely taken up by users in mainstream markets, whereas WeChat is mostly used within the Chinese diaspora. For this reason, a study of diasporic Chinese social media needs to pay more attention to WeChat.
A study that used GPS to track the use of WeChat in 32 cities across the globe revealed some interesting findings about the global uptake of WeChat (Xue, Yuan, Lee, & Ross, 2019). For instance, Prato, a city near Florence, Italy, and home to one of the largest Chinese-speaking populations in Europe, was found to have the highest concentration of Chinese users, as judged by WeChat’s “People-Nearby” service—a feature that shows WeChat users within a few kilometers of a given user. Prato, a city historically known for its textile industry, started to attract PRC migrants in the early 1990s. The study also indicated that Johannesburg, Chennai, Karachi, Muscat, Lyon, and Berlin have a high proportion of Chinese WeChat users who employ the local language of their host country, whereas those in several other cities, including Prato and Bucharest, tend not to use the local language, preferring to post in Chinese instead. The researchers interpreted the latter result as a possible indicator of a lower level of assimilation and saw this as a likely consequence of factors such as education and labor markets (Xue et al., 2019).
A key misconception surrounding WeChat among many public and media commentaries is that the Chinese-language digital media content that is delivered via the WeChat app, and WeChat as a platform, are one and the same thing. In other words, while most people in the West have no trouble understanding the distinction between Facebook and the content that is delivered via Facebook, they often fail to draw this crucial distinction when it comes to WeChat and the Chinese-language digital media content it carries. It is important to understand that a careful understanding of Chinese social media needs to consider the symbiotic relationships between three key components: online Chinese-language media content, WeChat as a platform for content delivery, and the WeChat Subscription Accounts (WSAs) that make this form of delivery possible.
WeChat is a location-centric app and is predominantly used by Mandarin speakers both within and outside China. In fact, the internal differences between diasporic Chinese migrants from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan can be understood not only in terms of their politics and cultural sensibility, but also in terms of which social media platforms they prefer. For instance, most migrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan prefer to use WhatsApp, not WeChat. A small percentage of people of Chinese extraction who do not have a PRC background—such as those dialect-speaking Chinese living in Southeast Asia—also use WeChat, but mainly for communicating with their Mandarin-speaking friends, colleagues, and business partners. To target as many potential Chinese customers as possible, companies, organizations, and individuals in various host countries often register WSAs through a Chinese proxy—a Chinese company or individual that specializes in opening PRC-based accounts on behalf of overseas Chinese. Such accounts give diasporic Chinese access to the vast potential market of mainland China (Brunet, 2019).
WeChat Delivery Channels
There are four main delivery “channels” available on the WeChat platform: WeChat Official Accounts (which include WSAs); interpersonal communication between private individuals using the Chat function; WeChat Groups that are spontaneously formed in response to various interests, such as gardening, parenting, and politics; and Moments (commonly referred to as Friends’ Forum)—the space where messages can be posted to everyone who is on one’s contact list. Even though diasporic Chinese may have become naturalized citizens of another country and are subject to the citizenship regimes of their host country, and even when national borders can be closed—as during the COVID-19 crisis that emerged early in 2020—WeChat allows these individuals to inhabit two quite different ways of being in the world. The China-based professor of media Wei Sun (2015) argues, following Heidegger, that by conquering the physical space that separates people, WeChat affords instant, almost simultaneous connection, and in doing so constructs what she calls a “Chinese dasein,” or “being-in-the-world.”
Individual diasporic Chinese WeChat users have access to all four functions available in the app, and by registering as a WeChat user they are able to access all the news and information that their families and friends in China post. In this sense, WeChat gives them the capacity to “be there,” “with them,” and to continue to live in a Chinese “world.” At the same time, WeChat also allows the diaspora to engage in the daily process of “(re)worlding” (Cheah, 2016)—the activity of working out how to live with a sense of in-betweenness. To this latter end, daily, private communication via the Chat function with like-minded friends who share the experience of being a PRC migrant helps shape a sense of belonging and assists individuals in coping with the challenge of being new or different in their adopted country. Often wedged between homeland and hostland, PRC migrants regularly share their conflicted and ambivalent sentiments toward their motherland and the host country by posting on Moments. And within WeChat Groups, each of which is limited to a maximum of 500 members, individuals frequently share information and debate topics and issues of particular concern to their lives as migrants. By subscribing to the WSAs of major Chinese-media outlets and individual blogs, these diasporic subjects live out the tension and incompatibility between information, ideas, and opinions from their homeland, from their hostland, and from elsewhere.
WeChat Subscription Accounts (WSAs)
WSAs are one of three kinds of Official Accounts available on WeChat, the other two being Service Accounts and Enterprise Accounts. Service Accounts are primarily used by corporates and organizations as a platform for connecting with customers and enabling ecommerce-related functions, and each account is permitted to send out only four messages per month. Enterprise Accounts are mainly for internal corporate communication and management, similar to Facebook’s Workplace platform. By contrast, WSAs do not require account holders to own a company business license and are thus the only kind of Official Account that is available to individuals. WSAs have an allowance of up to six articles per day, the only restriction being that all six posts must be pushed to subscribers simultaneously on that day. This makes them attractive to many businesses and media organizations that wish to connect with and push news items and marketing to their followers more frequently than is allowed with a Service Account (Dragon Social, 2019).
Posts made on WSAs are nested within a folder, making them less visible than Service Accounts, which appear directly in subscribers’ feeds in the same way as posts by their friends or their friends’ Groups. Individuals can apply for a free, basic WSA with a Chinese ID card, but in order to enjoy advanced functions, such as epayment, geolocation, and advertising banners, a WSA needs to be “verified” by WeChat’s administration, with an account verification fee of RMB300 per year for a Chinese domestic account, or USD99 per year for an overseas account. The approval process can be very complex and time-consuming, requiring applicants to supply many documents confirming the details of their business registration and operations before verification can be finalized (Dragon Social, 2019). Because of this complexity, international WeChat users generally apply for a Service Account through a third-party agency in China for a fee, in order to be verified for access to add-on services including WeChat Pay and WeChat Store. Such international Service Accounts are allowed up to eight news items, pushed once per week to their subscribers. Such accounts are not accessible to mainland Chinese WeChat users, who register on the platform with their Chinese phone numbers. International WeChat account holders, however, can subscribe to both Chinese and non-Chinese Official Accounts. Almost all new Chinese migrants and students who left China after 2011 would have taken their mainland-based accounts with them.
Almost all Chinese-language media outlets targeting Mandarin-speaking migrants in various parts of the world use WSAs as their main platform for disseminating news and information, because WeChat is the platform preferred by its intended audience, and WSAs are their preferred WeChat service. A WeChat user who subscribes to a WSA receives notifications automatically and can subsequently repost WSA articles to everyone in his or her WeChat groups. The user-friendliness of the WeChat app, combined with its capacity for infinite reproduction of content through reposting, ensures that such online media outlets can maximize their reach and impact if they are smart in their use of the platform. In recent years, some media organizations that normally form part of the “mainstream” media system in host countries have also started to push their content out via WSAs in order to access the Mandarin-speaking public. For instance, Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), a partially taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, started posting its Chinese-language program content using WSAs, but it soon realized that the price of gaining access to Australia’s Chinese-speaking community was the censorship of its content from time to time (Walsh & Xiao, 2019). Regardless of any concerns about likely censorship, however, commercial organizations such as Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper The Australian continue to use WSAs to post content regularly on WeChat.
An Australian study of the regulatory framework of WeChat (Yu & Sun, 2020) points to a complex picture of the regulatory framework and political economic context in which WSAs operate. WSAs normally fall into three categories. The first of these includes accounts that are set up by individuals as content-sharing platforms (in the form of blogging), often initially without any explicit expectation of revenue or profit. This category has nurtured numerous so-called self-media (or we-media) accounts that were set up by individuals as their sole digital platform and content production business operation. Some individuals may start out by setting up a self-media WSA content-sharing platform, but then, even if it attracts a wide subscriber base and becomes very influential, they allow the account to remain “unverified.” Their market size, as measured by number of subscribers and average views per article, can be on par with, if not surpass, some of the more established and verified WSAs.
The second category of WSAs includes accounts that are registered as media content providers and business operations, but under the name of an individual rather than an organization. These are the media outlets that have their own websites but also want to push some of their content further, and they see a WSA as the most effective way of doing that. The third kind of WSA includes accounts that are registered under the name of an organization and are established mainly for business or public diplomacy purposes.
Censorship on WeChat
All articles, documents, website links, and images that are posted on WeChat, both within China and internationally, are under “pervasive content surveillance” (Knockel et al., 2020, p. 5) by both human and algorithmic WeChat censors. Any item that is deemed “sensitive” by the censors will be blocked if it is posted to an account that was initially registered with a China-based phone number. Similar items posted to an international account will not normally be blocked but will apparently be used to “invisibly train and build up” (p. 5) WeChat’s censorship system for China-based accounts. Research on WeChat censorship has shown how it works at different levels (e.g., in relation to state policies and platform regulations), through a combination of gatekeeping strategies across different spaces within WeChat (the Chat function, Moments, WSAs, and other types of Official Account), and is characterized by a “one platform, two systems” policy (i.e., accounts that are initially registered with a Chinese mobile number are treated differently from those registered with a foreign number). Scrutiny of this space by the Chinese government usually takes place in the three key WeChat spaces—the Chat function, WeChat Moments, and WeChat Official Accounts.
Unlike social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, WeChat operates as a more enclosed and private ecosystem (Zhang, 2018). WeChat’s gatekeeping strategies include maintaining watch lists of individuals and organizations, algorithmic recognition of politically sensitive keywords and images (Knockel & Xiong, 2019), and close scrutiny of high-risk locations, especially during politically sensitive times. Not all WSAs are qualified to report on news and current affairs, particularly as this relates to Chinese politics, the economy, the military, foreign affairs, and unexpected incidents (Dragon Social, 2019). The only media entities that are allowed to engage in original news reportage are those that have been granted a news permit by the Chinese state or its delegates, and to be eligible for this, organizations must have been established in the PRC, with all their editors-in-chief and core management personnel being PRC citizens. Private companies, foreign entities, and joint Sino-foreign ventures are excluded from applying for a news permit (Cyberspace Administration of China, 2017).
Transnational, Cultural, and Socioeconomic Dimensions of WeChat
WeChat is far more than a news and information platform. As a New York Times Magazine article put it, WeChat is “a social network, a payments system, a communication medium and, perhaps most ambitious, the infrastructure for businesses” (Lu, 2019). Consequently, this explosion of new, digitally organized ways of staying in touch, networking, and doing business are transforming Chinese society. This is no less true in the Chinese diaspora than in mainland China. The use of WeChat in diaspora has not only changed the ways in which transnational families communicate, but it has also created new possibilities for identity expression, place-making, and political engagement, and for forging an everyday sense of belonging.
One study that illustrates this investigated the use of WeChat in Irkutsk, in the Siberian Federal District of Russia (Koreshkova, 2018), and found that the Chinese in that region tended to use the platform to maintain and build new connections with people in China, as well as with residents of the Irkutsk region. While there is nothing surprising about this conclusion, the study, adopting a cultural–anthropological perspective, points to some interesting differences between WeChat users in China and those in that region of Russia. Following the work of the Russian writer V. V. Maliavin, the study configures Chinese society in terms of three spheres: a core, represented by a family; an intermediate sphere that comprises professional, business, and even some personal connections; and a third sphere of strangers (Koreshkova, 2018, p. 1818). Comparing how people communicate in each of these three spheres before and after their adoption of WeChat, the study suggests that migrants who leave China to live in another country are able to maintain regular connections with their family through group chats, personal contact, the exchange of text and photo messages, and video chat. In addition, they are also able to broaden the horizon of their social relations by extending their virtual network and meeting new people through WeChat features such as “Shake,” “Users in the Neighborhood,” and “Floating Bottle,” functions that allow you to add new and unfamiliar users to your contacts. “Users in the Neighborhood” is alternatively translated as “People Nearby,” and “Floating Bottle” as “Drift Bottle.” The latter service has now been suspended because it was often being used to distribute and sell pornography (Borak, 2018).
Another study (Zhang & Wang, 2019) drew on observations about WeChat and interviews with Chinese media and real estate practitioners in Australia, and found that WeChat played a vital role in forging and reproducing Chinese diasporic spaces in Australia—for example, that the narratives about real estate properties that are deployed by both migrant media and real estate professionals constitute and reproduce a transnational Chinese diasporic space between China and Australia. The role of WeChat is also instrumental in the popularity of cross-border digital entrepreneurship, especially in the form daigou (proxy purchase, or parallel trading; see Hughes, Lucas, & Brown, 2019). A Russia-based study (Sosnovskikh, 2020) found that daigou traders have established well-organized supply-chain channels on the border between Russia and China and have helped to boost sales for Russian regional businesses. Furthermore, an Australia-based study found that international students and migrants from China buy Australian-made products—cosmetics, health products, baby formula, and so forth—and sell them to customers back in China at a percentage profit, using WeChat to promote their products and facilitate sales transactions (Martin, 2017).
Key Questions About the Chinese Diaspora and Social Media
First, in the era of China’s rise, and given China’s soft power agenda vis-à-vis the Chinese diaspora, have social media platforms become instruments of China’s public diplomacy within the Chinese diaspora? In public discourses in the global West, the default assumption has been that Chinese social media have indeed become vehicles for Chinese propaganda, and that this is therefore bad for democracy (e.g., Niu, 2019). But this focus on propaganda does not take into account the role that WeChat can play in the positive politicization of the Chinese diaspora. And this singular focus is not limited to public commentary. For instance, one study of the news and current affairs content of three Australia-based WSAs found that these accounts seldom published news about Chinese politics and foreign affairs (Sear, Jensen, & Chen, 2018). The absence of Chinese politics in this space was then presented as evidence of China’s influence, arguing that Australia-focused WeChat accounts only report “news that serve[s] the strategic objectives” of the Chinese government. While they caution that “the flow on effect of regulation and influence on these platforms when they are used outside China’s borders is more complex,” their research nevertheless misses a crucial distinction between WeChat being subject to the Chinese authorities’ censorship and WeChat being an instrument of propaganda for the Communist Party of China (CPC) (Sun, 2019c).
Some may argue that self-censorship through fear of being shut down would lead to the same outcomes as engaging in propaganda on behalf of the CPC, and that therefore the reasons or motivations behind such self-censorship are not relevant. However, a reluctance to acknowledge this distinction may lead to denying the agency—however limited—of the diasporic subjects who engage in myriad forms of transnational entrepreneurship for purposes of survival. It also runs the risk of portraying the Chinese diaspora as incapable of negotiating their ambivalence towards both their motherland and their host country and managing a complex cultural identity. Indeed, content that is circulated on WeChat is subject to scrutiny by Tencent and censorship by the Chinese authorities, but notwithstanding that control, WeChat, like Facebook and Twitter, is a social media platform that carries wide-ranging and diversely sourced content; despite the CPC’s determined and heavy-handed attempts at control and censorship, the platform’s ideological landscape is fragmented and contested.
A multiple-year research project on Chinese Australians’ use of Chinese-language digital/social media in Australia found that many Australia-based WSAs do produce material that fosters pro-China patriotism. For example, in one survey of WeChat users that formed part of that project (Sun, 2019d), a significant number of participants said they sided with China in relation to disputes over Huawei (73%) and the South China Sea (79%). However, support for China was dramatically lower in relation to disagreements between the two countries about China’s influence in Australia (40%), trade (38%), and, perhaps most surprisingly to people in the West, human rights (just 22%). At the same time, the survey also found that, overall, Chinese migrants in Australia were voluntarily spreading positive messages about the country: as many as 72% of respondents said they often or sometimes shared positive stories about Australia via Chinese social media platforms. And, importantly, they were doing so without any support or encouragement from the Australian government. An even higher level of pro-Australian sentiment was evident when participants were asked how often they reposted negative stories about Australia taken from local Chinese- or English-language media (e.g., stories about the high cost of living, racism against Chinese, or the “boring” lifestyle), with nearly 77% saying they rarely or never shared such stories. When asked with whom they shared stories—positive or negative—about Australia, 62% said “Chinese people living in China,” 58% said “Chinese immigrants living in Australia,” and 28% said “Chinese immigrants living in other parts of the world” (Sun, 2019d).
A textual analysis of the news and discussions on several Australia-based WSAs suggests that these accounts do not operate as a blunt tool of the Chinese government and its state media’s public diplomacy agenda, nor as a conveyor belt for transporting the content of mainstream English-language media into the Chinese Australian community. In fact, the majority of Chinese-language digital/social media-in-diaspora seem to exist profitably by actively giving voice to PRC migrants’ sense of ambivalence toward both China and their current country of residence (Sun, 2019b). Meanwhile, most people seem happy to assume the role of intermediary—being interested in simultaneously promoting both the motherland and the country they now call home.
Second, if Chinese social media, and especially WeChat, enable Mandarin-speaking migrants to continue to live according to Chinese ways of being-in-the-world, are these media posing a challenge to migrants’ potential integration into the society of their host country? Research so far does not point to a consensus on this. One case study (Zhang, 2018) that looked at Chinese migrants’ use of WeChat in relation to U.S. politics found that the platform was used effectively by conservative, first-generation PRC migrants in the United States, but that this had the downside of enabling a high level of political polarization and misinformation, thereby posing a significant challenge to Chinese migrants’ integration. Similarly, a case study based in Melbourne, Australia (Martin, 2018) raises ethical concerns about how mainland Chinese students studying in Melbourne use WeChat to express racial prejudice when confronted with the threat of targeted attacks on them by “African gangs,” some of them relying on “racialized reportage” on WeChat as their main source of local news. The study suggests that WeChat tends to socialize some users into a monocultural mindset, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the multicultural diversity they encounter in Australia. Even though this study focused on a Chinese student cohort, it is nevertheless relevant to the wider discussion about social media and the Chinese diaspora, since education is often the first step along the path toward permanent migration, so some of these students would most likely have been prospective members of the Chinese diaspora.
Like other social media platforms, WeChat can be used not only to spread misinformation, disinformation, and fake news, which is generally bad for democracy, but also to engage in fact-checking, which is generally good for democracy. WeChat can thus be a double-edged sword in the democratic process, especially in relation to political elections. On the one hand, there is evidence that it has been used by political candidates and their supporters to spread disinformation about opposing parties and candidates (Huang & Lahiri, 2019). On the other hand, another investigation uncovered some new ways in which WeChat may be enabling an incipient process of citizenship education, whereby newly naturalized Chinese Australian citizens engage in a wide variety of digital practices in order to inform and influence fellow Mandarin-speaking voters (Sun & Yu, 2020). This study suggests that WeChat has given birth to a new style of organic community leadership, in which self-appointed individuals set out to educate fellow Chinese migrants about democratic systems and values.
Considering these findings together, it seems safe to say that social media in the Chinese diaspora function in a variety of ways that are not always mutually reinforcing: while they may have enabled the diaspora community to stay more connected than ever before with the motherland, they also present some potential means of overcoming the challenges migrants often encounter in their civic and political participation in the new country. This potential is most clearly evidenced in the ways in which second-generation Chinese Americans used WeChat to engage in sustained debates with fellow Chinese Americans of their parents’ generation, over whether the Chinese diaspora should support the Black Lives Matter movement and forge solidarity with all racial minorities, following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 as a result of police brutality (Feng, 2020; Xie, 2020).
Recent research on social media in the Chinese diaspora reveals the inadequacy of some existing analytical frameworks. Most in need of updating and finessing are the concepts of digital Chinese diaspora and digital citizenship.
Digital Chinese Diaspora
While the concept of digital Chinese diaspora came into existence in the first decade of the 21st century, the majority of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, although launched in that decade, did not take off as everyday communication platforms until the second decade of the new millennium. Similarly, it was also in the latter decade that WeChat became China’s everyday “app for everyone” (Chao, 2017), both at home and abroad. Given this, it is understandable that existing theorizations of digital diaspora do not adequately take into account the complex social-media-enabled transnational space that diaspora communities negotiate.
As discussed previously, the Chinese diaspora is not only demographically diverse, but it has also become increasingly dominated by new arrivals from the PRC. What differentiates mainland Chinese WeChat users in China from those in diaspora is the more complex and hybrid ecology of social media access that the diaspora inhabits. Migration may turn a PRC citizen into a new citizen of the host country in a legal sense, but a large majority of these Mandarin speakers remain regular users of Chinese social media, ecommerce, and technology platforms such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (collectively known as “BAT”). They knowingly prefer to continue using WeChat, a platform that on the one hand is subject to censorship and scrutiny by the Chinese authorities, while on the other hand also operates in a “semi-private” setting (Sun & Yu, 2020). In other words, despite their migration, many mainlanders continue to be part of China’s digital culture.
In addition to these Chinese platforms, PRC migrants living outside China find themselves on the other side of the “Great Firewall”—a term that vividly describes China’s digital censorship system (Roberts, 2018; Schneider, 2018). Unlike their Chinese counterparts, diasporic Chinese have at their disposal all the global social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram, which are inaccessible within China without a virtual private network (VPN).
There are at least two implications arising from the fact that China’s diasporic communities are caught up in the conflicts of regulatory frameworks and systems of internet governance. First, on a daily basis, members of this diasporic cohort need to navigate the tensions and incompatibilities—culturally, ideologically, and politically—between information, ideas, and opinions that emanate from China, and those that circulate globally. This could also mean that their political agency as citizens in the global West is constrained by both “platform capitalism” (Srnicek, 2017) and surveillance forces that limit their “democratic potential” (Hintz & Dencik, 2016), as well as by the forces of China’s “digital authoritarianism” (Stockmann, 2013). Second, even though these diasporic communities can access all the social media platforms that are not available to their friends and families back in China, it may be not only culturally difficult but also practically unviable for them to switch to social media platforms other than WeChat. This is because such platforms (a) do not offer them the all-important cultural and practical interface they desire with China; (b) require a very different set of cultural practices, digital skills, language competence, and user habits; and (c) are more likely to be alienating than enabling culturally. It is precisely on these grounds that a California-based law firm launched a law suit on behalf of the not-for-profit U.S. WeChat Users Alliance in August 2020, challenging President Donald Trump’s proposed ban on WeChat (Veiga, 2020).
Any attempt to understand the digital Chinese diaspora needs to take into account both China’s internet firewall and what some commentators refer to as the “technological Cold War” between China and the West (Wu, Hoenig, & Dormido, 2019). Trump’s announcements in 2020 banning WeChat and TikTok in the United States (Executive Office of the President, 2020a, 2020b) should be understood in the context of the escalation of this technological Cold War. Similarly, the bans—first in Australia, then in the United States and the United Kingdom—on the Chinese telecom giant Huawei from the rollout of 5G technology testifies to the “intensification of the geopolitics surrounding exterritorial Internet infrastructure” (Tang, 2020, p. 4556) and its governance.
As a result of all these factors—whether they be enabling or limiting—members of the growing cohort of first-generation, Mandarin-speaking migrants can—indeed must—explore different cultural identities, experience different community sentiments, and occupy different political positions from earlier-generation, dialect-speaking Chinese migrants. Rather than following a linear and unproblematic progression from new migrant to fully integrated citizen, individuals in the Chinese diaspora experience tension and ambivalence on a daily basis while also successfully negotiating the transnational “in-betweenness” in which they find themselves caught up. The notion of diaspora, rather than being conceptualized in terms of either time or space, needs significant fine-tuning in order to foreground the transitions and shifts that this new cohort experiences, as well as the conflicts and contradictions thrown up by these changes. It needs to take into account the integral role played by social media in articulating tension and ambivalence for these individuals, as well as in facilitating their transitions and shifts as they accommodate themselves to their new cultural environment. Fine-tuning with a view to accommodating the conflicts and contradictions that characterize the Chinese diaspora is particularly important in the current geopolitical circumstances, which increasingly pit China against the global West. On the one hand, Chinese-language digital and social media may be effectively harnessed by the Chinese diaspora to promote democratic values, knowledge of democratic procedures, and citizens’ responsibility to act—and awareness of the consequences of failing to act—in the national interest of their adopted country. On the other hand, this community can also use these platforms to promote knowledge about their rights as citizens, especially since their civil liberties could come under threat should the law enforcement agencies of their host country accuse them, for example, of working as China’s “spies” or “agents” without presenting evidence or proof of guilt.
A “digital diaspora” is understood to have three building blocks—immigration, information technology, and network capacity (Laguerre, 2010, p. 50)—and it is defined by its capacity for sharing information, networking, education, and mobilization (Brinkerhoff, 2009). While some believe that digital diasporas remain powerful but largely untapped resources for both homeland and host governments (Brinkerhoff, 2010), others caution that they can produce both marginalization and disempowerment, and any study of digitally enabled social exclusion must therefore look at “exclusion-embedded design, appropriation, access, usage, policy, and reproduction” (Laguerre, 2010, p. 53). Rather than fitting neatly into either the “marginality” model or the “empowerment” model (Laguerre, 2010), the digital practice of first-generation migrants points to a much more complex experience than either of these models can account for.
Most first-generation Chinese migrants all over the world face the transition from an authoritarian political context to a liberal democracy. They become subject to a different set of civic and political expectations, duties, and responsibilities, and therefore they must acquit themselves in relation to the civic practices of a very different citizenship regime. Finally, as these new migrants are—and in most cases remain—deeply connected to and enmeshed with the digital space of the PRC, they live within a media ecology that offers them often competing and contradictory information and perspectives.
The recent research on social media and their role in relation to the Chinese diaspora discussed previously presents us with an opportunity to update existing scholarship on digital citizenship. So far, research on digital citizenship has tended to focus on the use of digital platforms in bringing about revolution, and on the operations of pro-democracy movements in authoritarian societies (e.g., Howard & Hussain, 2013). Alternatively, it has concentrated on citizens in marginalized or minority identity groups that are striving to gain visibility, voice, and political representation in a democratic yet increasingly neoliberal and unequal society, including groups that advocate on behalf of youth, ethnic minorities, the disabled, and women (e.g., Johns & Cheong, 2019; Vromen, 2017). In most cases, the notion of digital citizenship is invoked “negatively to address problems, with less attention to the promises of creative culture and alternative modes of participation” (McCosker, Vivienne, & Johns, 2016, p. 1).
There is also a tendency in current digital citizenship scholarship to study public-facing, globally networked social media platforms, even though some scholars (e.g., Papacharissi, 2010; Skocpol, 2003) are now calling for greater attention to the ways in which citizens engage with politics through personal interests and networks using both public and private modes of address, as is the case with WeChat. Furthermore, it is not clear how the conceptual framework of digital citizenship can be operationalized in the context of studying new migrants who experience the sometimes wrenching transition from an authoritarian to a liberal democratic society. Nevertheless, situating digital citizenship in this context has conceptual and theoretical promise. Future research may do well to investigate whether, and if so how, social media platforms not only create obstacles and challenges to this particular form of transnational citizenship building but also afford promising new possibilities and opportunities in this sphere.
Given the short history of social media and their use by the Chinese diaspora, there is not a substantial body of primary source material to draw on. The starting points for most scholars of diasporic Chinese social media therefore usually fall into one of the following categories: (a) works that provide an overview, theorization, or methodological introduction to a particular aspect of the topic, such as the Chinese diaspora, diasporic Chinese media, WeChat, digital diaspora, digital ethnography, or digital citizenship; (b) firsthand ethnographic accounts of diasporic Chinese social media usage (including digital ethnography), interviews with media consumers and practitioners, survey data about users’ social media experiences and activities, and technical investigations of specific platforms (e.g., WeChat); (c) the digital presence of high-profile players in Chinese-language social media; and (d) the websites, press releases, policies, and other publications of Chinese social media platforms as these relate to their diasporic presence.
Overviews and Introductions
Ma and Cartier (2003) offer a valuable overview of the Chinese diaspora and its history, with a focus on post-1960s migration, framing the discussion in the context of transnationalism, while Tan’s (2013b) Handbook offers a more recent overview of the topic. Cohen (2008) is the second edition of a foundational text in global diasporic studies, and this is complemented well by Alonso and Oiarzabal (2010), which offers an extensive examination of the social use of digital media by global diasporas, albeit mostly predating social media. Sun (2006) and Sun and Sinclair (2016) are ethnography-rich studies of the Chinese diaspora’s use of media, with the latter volume foregrounding digital media. While WeChat has emerged as the (currently) dominant Chinese social media platform, to date most scholarly work that deals with this platform has appeared in academic journal articles rather than book-length treatments. Chen et al. (2018) is a concise and accessible book about WeChat, seeking to shed light on how this “super-sticky” app has integrated itself so powerfully into almost every dimension of Chinese life, both at home and abroad. It also contains a useful WeChat “Timeline” and an extensive list of references. For an introduction to the concept of digital diaspora, together with a range of examples of specific research projects in this sphere, see Brinkerhoff (2009).
One of the primary methodologies currently used for studying social media is digital ethnography. Pink et al. (2016) provide a useful introduction to this methodology, together with examples of particular research projects that exemplify this approach to studying the use of digital social media. For a clear definition of and introduction to the topic of digital citizenship, see Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal (2008), while McCosker et al. (2016) provides a more recent discussion, set firmly in the context of specific research projects investigating aspects of digital citizenship.
Firsthand Ethnographic Accounts, Interviews, Survey Data, and Technical Investigations
Firsthand ethnographic accounts are most commonly accessible only as quotations or paraphrases in analytical, theoretical, political, or journalistic discussions of Chinese social media platforms and their consumers, producers, and institutional infrastructure. Several such accounts are available, for example, in Sun (2002, 2006), Sun and Sinclair (2016), Sun and Yu (2020), Martin (2017, 2018), and Lu (2019). Likewise, the findings and implications of survey data are generally embedded within, and illustrative of, discussions of cultural, political, historical, economic, and other issues concerning Chinese social media. Good examples of such sources include Zhang (2018) and Yu and Sun (2020). Knockel et al. (2020), together with some of the other reports from the Citizen Lab, present valuable technical analysis and discussion of such matters as how surveillance and censorship work within WeChat.
The Digital Presence of Information Providers and Opinion Leaders in WeChat
To really understand how a Chinese-language social media platform such as WeChat works, to discover firsthand how the app’s features work, and to see how high-profile individuals and organizations—for example, opinion-leaders, retailers, advertisers, news and information organizations, and politicians—operate in this space, it is necessary to become a WeChat user. However, there are a number of very informative and insightful English-language discussions and analyses of the activities of many of WeChat’s features, and of the activities of some of its key players. Several of the items cited in the section “Firsthand Ethnographic Accounts, Interviews, Survey Data, and Technical Investigations” are helpful in this respect, as are Dragon Social (2019), Brunet (2019), Sun (2016, 2019b), and Zeng (2018).
Social Media Platforms’ Websites, Press Releases, and Policies
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- Networked Individualism, East Asian Style
- Social Media in Mainland China: Weak Democracy, Emergent Civil Society
- Refugees and Diasporas
- Social Media and Intergroup Communication
- Intergroup Communication: Asia/Australasia
- Progressive Social Movements and the Internet
- Social Media, Culture, and Communication
- Glocalization of the Television Format in China
- Adopting the Internet in Urban China