On Oct. 20, many Chinese living in New York saw a post from a man named Wan Yanhai in groups they participated in on WeChat, the most popular social media app for Chinese people globally.
The post, in Chinese language and accompanied by a photo of Wan, started with the line: “I am Chinese. I am not the Chinese virus.”
Then, it reminded group members that only 14 days remained until the U.S. presidential election — and called on them to vote President Donald Trump out of office.
The reaction in numerous chat groups was not friendly.
Many new immigrants to the U.S. from China support Trump, at a time of little tolerance across the political spectrum for people holding different views. A nationwide poll issued in September found that nearly 60% of Chinese-American voters identify as independent or Republican.
Wan’s previous WeChat messages criticizing the president on social media not only led him to face curses in the dirtiest Chinese words but also death threats.
Still, despite the verbal assault and even a death threat, Wan, who lives in Rego Park, Queens, has been posting his election countdown with the same message every day.
Wan is a rebel voice at a time when “cancel culture” is prevailing, promoting uniformity of views within communities online and off. But the 56-year-old exiled Chinese dissident has been fighting like this his whole life.
Asked whether he worries about his safety, Wan said: “People asked me the same question when I worked against the will of the Chinese Communist Party in China. I do. But it would be more dangerous to let things be.”
Witness to Tiananmen
Wan’s defiance started in 1989.
As a recent college graduate working as a researcher at the health education institute of China’s Ministry of Health, Wan joined the democracy movement that took over Beijing in the late spring of that year. He was a witness in Tiananmen Square to the bloodshed during the government crackdown in the early hours of June 4.
After the Chinese regime crushed the Tiananmen movement, Wan focused his energy on AIDS prevention. He set up the first hotline in China to offer AIDS-related information and founded the Aizhixing Institute, the first AIDS awareness entity in China.
Aizhixing’s work soon expanded from AIDS prevention to human rights campaigns for not only AIDS patients but also the LGBT community, as well as sex workers, Uighurs and released detainees — groups of people whose existence the Chinese government either rarely acknowledged or completely ignored.
His work landed Wan in jail several times. And in 2010, when he left China to visit the U.S. and then went to Canada for a year-long visiting scholar program, he was told by the Chinese government that he would not be allowed to return.
After spending time in different cities and towns in Canada and the U.S., Wan, his wife and their two daughters moved to Rego Park in late 2015.
Community Political Awakening
Just as Wan arrived in New York, the political awareness of the Chinese community in the city as well as the nation had just been awakened by a shooting in which Officer Peter Liang accidentally killed an innocent Black man, Akai Gurley, in Brooklyn.
The indictment in February that year of the Chinese-American rookie cop for the shooting, which unfolded in a darkened stairwell as he patrolled a public housing development, sparked fury in the Chinese community. That was because several white cops involved in killing Black men had managed to avoid prosecution in the past.
Thousands of Chinese came out onto the streets for multiple protests. The following year, a swelling number of Chinese Trump supporters among this so-called “silent community” helped send the Republican to the White House.
Even as polls suggest that support for Trump may be subsiding nationally, many Chinese Americans have remained loyal.
In an online survey launched on Sept. 29 by Wenxue City, the biggest aggregated news site for Chinese-language readers in the U.S., 68% of 3,816 respondents as of Oct. 29 said they support Trump while only 25.5% support Joe Biden in the presidential election.
Indeed, many of Wan’s fellow Tiananmen protesters are now Trump supporters, attracted by his tough rhetoric against China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Those Trump allies include Wang Dan and Wang Juntao, both major leaders of the Tiananmen movement. “The Trump administration might be the hand that eventually pushes China to democracy,” Wang Juntao told THE CITY.
But Wan doesn’t buy it.
“Trump has inflicted major damage on democracy,” he said. “You want to fight against the CCP, but you shouldn’t expect one monster to eat another monster. The way to change China is to change Chinese people, to engage them with democracy. That includes overseas Chinese.”
The Essence of Democracy
That’s why after facing threats of being beaten to death and being reported to the FBI as a Chinese Communist Party agent, Wan keeps his flow of posts criticizing Trump on social media where opponents trash him as a “pig head.”
Wan alludes to Trump’s insistence on calling the coronavirus “the China virus” — a label that has fed a wave of verbal and sometimes physical attacks on Asian Americans.
Some WeChat users questioned Wan’s nationality when he called himself “a Chinese” in his election countdown message. Wan, who was naturalized as an American two years ago, simply said: “When people beat me up, I am a Chinese.”
Said Wan: “I want to show that the racist comments of the president affect real people.”
Wan’s tenacity won him some respect from people on the other side. “He doesn’t offer an objective assessment of Biden or Trump, but he posts for the interests of the community and the country not for himself,” said Donghui Zang, a Trump voter and City Council candidate in Queens’ Council District 29, which includes Rego Park. “And he’s never gone berserk when people attacked him.”
Others Wan has touched with his words provide modest support. Sometimes, in the conservative-leaning WeChat groups, one or two people will apply the “thumbs up” emoji to his messages.
“This is the essence of democracy,” said Wan. “You present all information and debate in a peaceful way to influence people and bring changes, not that you walk away from people you don’t agree with.”
An Atypical Liberal
Wan, whose work in China got positive attention from U.S. Democratic Party politicians and who later became a Democrat himself, is not a typical liberal when it comes to New York City issues.
Like some Chinese New Yorkers running for local elected office, he is critical of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza’s proposal to overhaul specialized high school admissions. Wan contends the plan would unfairly reduce the opportunities for Asian students who work hard to pass the single exam required for entry.
He also questions the city’s borough-based jail plan, which would put a high-rise tower of cells in Kew Gardens near his home and another in Manhattan’s Chinatown, in addition to two other locations — because its impact on nearby residents hasn’t been fully evaluated, he said.
But when it comes to Trump, he has never had a second thought.
“I was traumatized when Trump was elected in 2016,” said Wan. “When I worked in China, America to me was a shelter. When the Chinese government chased after me, I would come here to stay for a while, and then go back to continue my work.
“But when Trump dims the beacon of freedom and democracy in this country, people like me have nowhere to go. That was the moment I realized that I have to fight for America.”