Chinese Voters on Long Island Mobilized on WeChat

(Photo via World Journal)

(Photo via World Journal)

In the general election, Doug Lee, the Republican candidate who challenged the incumbent assemblyman in District 16 on Long Island, got more than 10,000 votes, or 40 percent of those cast. WeChat, a social media platform popular among Chinese, was a “secret weapon” for his grassroots campaign.

The district covers Great Neck, Manhasset and Port Washington, neighborhoods where there are more and more young Chinese residents who use WeChat as a major social tool. It started with various online interest communities such as the group of moms, the group of ball players, and the group of hunters, and then developed into a platform for mobilizing participation in politics.

Lili Zhang, who is in charge of community engagement at the Great Neck Chinese Association, said WeChat first played a role in the campaign of Chris Huang for the Great Neck Board of Education earlier this year. To support Huang, the first Chinese to run for the Board of Election in Great Neck, his Chinese supporters set up a group on WeChat to discuss strategies, share information and coordinate volunteers [Translator’s note: The election was held on May 20 and Huang lost].

When Lee announced he was going to run for assembly, Chinese residents in the district posted and reposted the information on their WeChat accounts. Close to a hundred supporters then set up an online group called “DC 16” to help him campaign.

Lee said his campaign was “mom-and-pop style” — this was his first time running for public office. No one heard of him before. The media largely ignored him. And he only raised $25,000, less than one-tenth of his opponent. He couldn’t afford advertising, and had to completely rely on his Chinese volunteers knocking on the doors of voters.

For the volunteers who worked for Lee, it was also an experience of “crossing the river by touching the stones.” Zhang said recent incidents like the outrageous China joke aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live [Translator’s note: A segment of the show had a group of kids discussing how to solve the debt problem in the U.S. One child suggested killing everyone in China.] and the controversial legislation calling for reform of admission requirements for specialized high schools made Chinese realize that they have to vote to get their voices heard.

At the beginning, the volunteers had no strategy. They only mobilized among their own friends and family members on WeChat. Later, they divided the Chinese-concentrated neighborhoods in Great Neck into 13 areas. Each area had a coordinator who was in charge of dispatching volunteers to distribute campaign fliers and collecting the WeChat username and email address of every Chinese-American voter living in the area. On Election Day, volunteers called their contacts on WeChat to cast their votes, and provided real time help to those who encountered problems via the social media platform.

Although Lee didn’t win, it was encouraging to his supporters that he got more than 10,000 votes. “The most important thing is Chinese residents in Great Neck have organized in this election. And this is a solid base for protecting our rights and participating in politics in the future,” said Zhang. Also, the call on WeChat to vote sent many Chinese to the poll sites together with their young children, an inspiration for the younger generation to participate in politics.

Zhang said when the official count of ballots is released, she plans to write a report and share it with her WeChat friends. “We may also hold a post-election meeting to learn some lessons from this campaign and to see how we can do better in the future,” she said.

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