Russian attempts to influence American politics have dominated headlines in recent years. But Chinese efforts have arguably been more effective – in large part because they have been overwhelmingly conducted in the Chinese language on WeChat, an app ubiquitously used by Chinese Americans. Recent cases in Texas and Florida illustrate how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using the platform and other means to try and shape public policy outcomes.
Shortly after the Texas legislature convened for its annual session on January 10, Texas State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican, introduced SB147, a bill that would ban governments, companies, and citizens of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea from purchasing land in Texas. This legislation was triggered by a former Chinese military officer’s 2021 purchase of 140,000 acres of land near Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas. On January 15, Texas Governor Greg Abbot signaled his support for the bill.
Starting the next day, WeChat, whose content is thoroughly regulated by the CCP, became flooded with misinformation about the legislation. Starting on 1point3acres (一亩三分地), a large WeChat public account and online forum and website managed from Shandong, China, narratives emerged describing SB147 as a “new Chinese Exclusion Act,” while avoiding any mention of what triggered it.
In the days that followed, additional new anti-SB147 groups emerged on WeChat. As is characteristic of other CCP-sanctioned campaigns on the platform, these WeChat groups had a singular narrative slant. They forbid balanced discussions, kicked out anyone who disagreed, and promoted the most radical (and in this case anti-American) voices. Those who supported the bill were called “Chinese traitors.” Some posts encouraged users to sabotage pro-SB147 accounts by labeling them as spam, reporting them to the FBI as spies, or even assaulting the users behind them.
In parallel, organizations such as the Asian Americans Leadership Council (AALC), whose leader, Ling Luo, has years of contacts with high ranking CCP officials and boosters and often appears in Chinese state media, mobilized opposition to the bill.
Efforts to oppose the bill, it should be noted, extend far beyond any CCP influence operation. A wide range of groups devoted publicity, organizing, and advocacy efforts to oppose the bill, citing the long and shameful history of anti-Asian racism in America, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War II. Accordingly, the anti-SB147 effort has found supporters among Democratic Party politicians such as State Representative Gene Wu and U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu, advocacy groups such as the ACLU, and the liberal media. The vast majority of the bill’s opponents are unlikely to be aware that they are aligned with the CCP on this issue.
Protests against the bill broke out on January 29 in Dallas and February 11 in Houston. The mounting public pressure led Kolkhorst to modify the bill on March 1 to ensure it did not prevent dual citizens or legal permanent residents from buying homes near military bases. While this compromise alleviated the legitimate concerns of some opponents, such as Democratic State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (who is now a co-sponsor), it did little to assuage the CCP. Accounts on WeChat and certain Chinese American organizations with CCP ties such as the AALC, the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance (CALDA), and United Chinese Americans are still calling SB 147 the “New Chinese Exclusion Act,” the “Texas Chinese Exclusion Land Act,” or the “Texas Discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Bill.”
More recently, when the first hearing on the bill was held in Austin on March 2, two pro-bill witnesses required a police escort to the hearing due to threats of violence coming from WeChat accounts. Simultaneously, the very same WeChat groups that are constantly flooded with pro-CCP and anti-democracy propaganda successfully mobilized over 100 opponents of the bill to attend the hearing as witnesses. Still, the bill has progressed to the point that it is now before the Texas State Senate for a vote.
A similar dynamic is also occurring in Florida, which is taking up legislation similar to Texas’ SB147. On April 11, Florida’s Senate unanimously passed SB264, which prevents China and six other “countries of concern” from buying or holding interest in land near strategic sites in the state. The next day, a slew of WeChat groups with names such as “anti-SB264” or “anti new Chinese Exclusion Act” have emerged to oppose the bill. These groups exaggerate the bill’s impact, claiming that “anyone with a Chinese last name will be discriminated against when buying a home,” even though the bill does not preclude any U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident from buying land. Some posts even claimed that “those who sold homes to Chinese would be thrown into prison.”
The first WeChat-organized Zoom meeting to discuss the bill brought together 300 people on April 13 and the first WeChat-organized protests were held in Tallahassee on April 19. Meanwhile, WeChat group administrators continue to mobilize a wide range of actors to petition, lobby, protest, speak to the media, and attend state hearings to work against the bill. Many of these WeChat groups are organized by Zuo Qian, secretary of American Chinese United Association (ACUA) and head of North American Economic Herald (NAEH), both of which have close ties with the CCP.
Lawmakers in both states need to resist the pressure ginned up by the CCP and pass these bills before their legislative sessions close for the year (on May 29 for Texas and May 5 for Florida). The same goes for other states, which are entertaining a series of China-focused bills on issues such as banning state governments from entering into technology contracts with Chinese companies.
More broadly, state legislators across the country – indeed, all Americans – must be aware that the CCP is operating in the shadows to derail common sense security measures that run against its interests.
This piece has been edited to counter misperceptions that all opposition to these bills is linked to CCP influence efforts. It has also been recategorized as an opinion piece.